The Stairwell Sisters
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The Stairwell Sisters

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Band Americana Bluegrass

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In all genres of music, there seems still to be a tendency to view all-female bands as novelties, despite the obvious fact that in many cases
they sing and play as well or better than the guys. If the cover story of the previous issue of Sing Out! has convinced anyone that the list of
top-flight all-female old-time bands begins and ends with Uncle Earl - good as they are - then be prepared to be convinced by the Stairwell Sisters that
there are at least two. (Check out that same issue for the Stairwell Sisters' song "Could It Be Him" - Eds.)

Based on the West Coast, in Oakland, the "Sisters" are Evie Ladin (banjo), Stephanie Prausnitz (fiddle), Lisa Berman (guitar and "old-time" dobro), Sue
Sandlin (guitar and "old-time" tiple) and Martha Hawthorne (bass). Who sings? All of 'em. Who writes? Most of 'em. Along the way, they pay homage to the likes of Fiddlin' Arthur Smith ("Weary Weary World"), Kentucky fiddler Owen "Snake" Chapman ("Big Black Cat"), Dock Boggs ("Drunkard's Love Child") (sic) and more.

Don't get the impression it's a lesson or lecture in musicology or field recording, though. The ladies are having a huge amount of fun playing these
old tunes as well as their own, and that sense of good times, high energy and love of music and performance permeates and resonates throughout the
whole disc. Male or female, one of the best bands in the biz.

- Sing Out!


Whether they're singing about a burned dinner or a cryin' baby, an empty wallet or a disappointing lover, The Stairwell Sisters crank out an acoustic, old-timey sound with a punk-rock intensity. - Anchorage Daily News


Five women who attack string instruments with a veracity that rivals some of
rock's most venerated fret-burners…played with a gospel spirit and an expressive playfulness… rarely have songs taken from the public domain sounded so modern and vital. - Dallas Observer


Offering a carefree, pure and rowdy sound...these city girls have all the virtues of the country: a simplicity and directness that comes straight from the heart...but it is the power of the original songs that truly confirms The Stairwell Sisters' sincerity and real skill. - The Metro


a powerhouse ensemble... - San Francisco Chronicle


You didn’t know we needed a pep-stepping girlie-girl, swamp-chthonic yet
leather-tough take on early American roots music, didja? Well, nobody else
did either until the hurricane called THE STAIRWELL SISTERS swept out of San
Francisco to assume it’s present role as collective dominatrix of allemandes
and other unsquare moves. Close harmonies, relentless energy and thundering
footwork alternate with footsore ballads as the Sisters take full command. - Citypulse, Lansing, MI


No fake-bravado flash, no glitz…just the real thing. The San Francisco area
STAIRWELL SISTERS mesh together in a way that makes the “Sisters” half of
its name absolutely appropriate. Fast, well-picked, played-from-the-heart offerings abound. - Dirty Linen


The Stairwell Sisters' latest release is reflective of their ever-expanding artistry and reputation
...'Feet All Over the Floor' is old-time music at its finest and establishes The Stairwell Sisters
as significant interpreters of traditional American music. - Bluegrass Unlimited


Make room Uncle Earl, Be Good Tanyas and Wailing Jennys - The Stairwell Sisters are here with their deeper-roots female update on early American roots music. Sounding like the fresh branch of a much older tree, The Stairwell Sisters mix old-time dance music and rich folk traditions through stunning vocal harmonies, rhythmic empathy and instrumental verve. - WFHB


...you know that square dancing is HOT! You can't afford to lower your street cred by
failing to learn allemand lefts and do-si-dos, and fortunately The Stairwell Sisters are here to command you...(they) are experts at music sweet and hot - The Metro Santa Cruz


Discography

Get Off Your Money (2008)
Feet All Over the Floor (2005)
The Stairwell Sisters (2003)
Buckdancing for Beginners Instructional DVD (2002)

Photos

Bio

Producer Lloyd Maines recalls hearing The Stairwell Sisters for the first time. “I happened upon this tribe of women musicians, playing old-time string music, with the power and excitement of a great rock band.”

Tribe of women indeed. Evie Ladin explains what holds sway with the sisters, themes similarly found in one of their early influences, Hazel Dickens & Alice Gerrard, “not exactly the sweet and tender ladies, but the stand up for yourself and face the world kind of women.”

Exactly the women that make up The Stairwell Sisters. Ladin, Stephanie Prausnitz. Lisa Berman, Martha Hawthorne, and Sue Sandlin are career women, organizers, activists and mamas; making ends meet working and living in San Francisco. They also happen to crank out acoustic, old-time music with a punk-rock intensity. Somehow, between raising babies, working and releasing records, they’ve taken their band to some pretty esteemed places – appearing on A Prairie Home Companion, as well as festival stages from Lincoln Center (NYC) to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass (SF), Celtic Connections (UK), and many points in between.

Their third release Get Off Your Money produced by Maines and out May 12, covers a lot of ground as well. There are fiddle tunes crafted decades ago from Alabama to Scotland and points unknown. There are old songs of trains, boats and possums. One song is translated from Swahili, an all-too familiar story learned from a street musician in Tanzania. There are new songs too – original songs of trial and work, loss and love, and all-night parties. The women run all of it through the “Sister Mill.” Regardless which era or continent the songs traveled, The Stairwell Sisters make such heartfelt and skillfully played music, that boundaries dissolve in the chugging force of old-time fiddle and banjo, the whomp of bass and guitar, the grit of the slide guitar, and tight, closely interwoven harmonies.

The Sisters all come from varied musical backgrounds, some from acoustic traditions, some through amped-up rock and roll. Sue Sandlin says hearing Flatt and Scruggs brought her back to the music her family loved, “It was akin to the hair raising excitement I felt the first time I heard The Clash as a teenager.”

The Stairwell Sisters are all about bringing that excitement to the stage. Lauded for infectious shows that combine buckdancing with balladry and sass -- the women always pick up their instruments hell-bent to drive the music.

The leadoff track, “Kentucky Winder,” is one such driving tune, with its crooked jump in the beat that fiddler Stephanie Prausnitz says, “really wallops the punch.” Stephanie also brought the mischievous title song to the group, having found it on an old recording of Alabama Fiddlers. Its happy nature is the essence of what makes playing together so much fun.

Lisa explains the communal lure of the genre. “You can be anywhere among friends, or strangers, and jump right in - the living room, the kitchen, the woods, even a demonstration. No outlets needed. It's an ever-changing music, grounded in a strong tradition.”

Evie, who grew up clogging and playing banjo in the unlikely locale of suburban New Jersey, elaborates why old-time music is timeless. "People have always sung of their struggles, with work, love, the forces of nature. Coal mining songs, union songs, not too much has changed when you consider the common person," she said in a recent interview. "Either way, it's about enduring and working for a decent life.”

Some of the original songs on Get Off Your Money have these socio-political struggles in mind. The imagery of “David and Goliath” inspired Sue to pay homage to the” generations of young people who stand up with incredible courage against unbelievable instruments of power.” The first line of “Shuffle and Shine” jumped into her head after seeing men in her neighborhood gathered, looking for day labor– “Hey there captain / give me a sign /sure could use a spot on your line.”

Martha’s job as a public-health nurse shaped “Who’s To Blame?,” “I place the blame for addiction and homelessness not on individual failures, but on a system that puts profit before people,” she says. “I tried to end the song on a hopeful note, that we can find love and comfort, despite the odds stacked against us.”

Stephanie found the song “Selina” in Tanzania. A street musician named Claudi Beida was a one-man show on a two-string fiddle and wrote the original version, which everyone around the village knew. “I was struck by the universality of the message, and how similar it was to the old time and bluegrass songs we sing, as well as the rock songs we all grew up hearing,” says Stephanie. “Skipping school, getting pregnant, snubbing authority; laying with the dogs and picking up fleas.”

Lisa, who originally founded the group with Sue, practicing old-timey harmony singing in the stairwell of their workplace, brought the funky “Hangman Tree” to the Sister Mill. Lisa recounts that Lloy