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How the Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp changed Middle Tennessee and helped jump-start an international movement

Rebel Girls



On the final afternoon of the 2012 Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp, Hannah Sheehan stands onstage in Hinton Hall, in Middle Tennessee State University's Wright Music Building. Holding a microphone in one hand as a black-T-shirt-clad band stands patiently behind her, instruments at the ready, she looks down over her notes at the 80 or so rock campers pressed against the front of the stage and each other.

Ranging in age from 10-17, and sporting hair that ranges in hue from platinum blond to electric purple, the campers hail from all over the Southeast and beyond. Over the past decade, nearly 1,000 girls have spent a midsummer week here on the MTSU campus, forming bands, screenprinting posters, pushing up the faders on mixing boards and, most importantly, rocking out — often for the first time in a group setting.

For some, SGRRC lays the foundation for lifelong involvement in music and the communities that music creates, whether as singers, instrumentalists, printmakers, engineers, producers or music writers. For all who attend, it is a special time, a microcosmic world where everything revolves around music — and girls are the ones who make those revolutions happen.

"I think I'm gonna cry," Sheehan says, glancing quickly over her left shoulder toward the wings of the stage.

But Sheehan isn't a camper. She actually directed SGRRC in 2009, and works as a volunteer, sometimes with her 1-year-old daughter in tow. And any tears she has right now are tears of joy. Backstage stands the original rockin' role model, the woman who told generations of girls they could pick up guitars and assert their right to join popular music's most monolithic boys' club.

After asking, "Are you ready?" one last time, Sheehan pauses, raises one arm in the air and finally lets loose.

"Please give it up," she yelps, "for Wanda Jackson!"

With that, the Queen of Rock herself emerges, to a maelstrom of screams and cheers — many of which, it should be noted, emanate from camp volunteers and parents. Clad in a bright red blouse shimmering with chevrons of fringe, a majestic tangle of black curls rising from the top of her head, the 74-year-old Rock and Roll Hall of Famer strides to the front of the stage, smiling widely at the phalanx of campers.

"I see some new stars right here in my midst," Jackson says, her eyes sparkling. Soon she's leading her band, Nashville-based Heath Haynes and the Hi-Dollars, through a rollicking, career-spanning set peppered with hits from "Fujiyama Mama" to "Right or Wrong."

Between songs, Jackson recounts select tales from her six-decades-long-and-counting career. The mention of working with Jack White — whom she describes as "a velvet-covered brick" for his style and tenacity — elicits gleeful shrieks. The girls also cheer when she mentions some guy named Elvis. "I guess he was kinda cute," Jackson says of her first tourmate.

By the time she closes the set with her 1960 classic "Let's Have a Party," the girls (and camp volunteers) are dancing and pumping their fists. A chant of "Wanda! Wanda! Wanda!" follows her offstage.

After a brief post-show Q&A session — "Just keep it simple," Jackson advises at one point — bags rustle, drumsticks clink together and the campers gather up their things in a rush toward the exit. For the 15 bands that formed on the first day of camp, it's time for one final practice before Saturday night's big closing showcase. And following Jackson's lead, these girls are restless to make some noise of their own.

In 2002, Kelley Anderson had just finished her first year as an audio production major at MTSU. She was back at her parents' home in South Carolina waiting tables for the summer when she heard about the Rock and Roll Camp for Girls in Portland, Ore., which had started a year prior as a college women's studies project by founder Misty McElroy. Anderson knew she had to check it out, so she scraped together enough money to fly to Oregon, and volunteered to teach advanced guitar.

"The experience of being out there — not just the camp, but the network of women and how that whole community of musicians functions — was just so different from anything I had ever experienced," Anderson recalls. It also made her realize she wanted to transform her own surroundings.

"I came to Nashville thinking, 'It's a music town, there's going to be tons of women musicians,' " Anderson says. But that wasn't her experience. In those days, in large lecture halls filled with hundreds of recording students, it was common for her to see maybe 10 other women in attendance, at best.

"This is symptomatic of a larger issue," she remembers thinking. "This isn't just my little town in South Carolina that sucks — it's kinda like this everywhere. But here's something interesting going on in the Northwest."

So with the Portland camp as model and inspiration, Anderson returned to MTSU in the fall determined to stage a similar camp in Tennessee. She didn't know it at the time, but she was building just the second girls' rock camp in the country. She would eventually be instrumental in forming the Girls Rock Camp Alliance — which would grow to include more than 40 camps in the U.S. and Canada, and as far away as Sweden.

She also never thought she would go on to tour the world with a band made up of a former camper and camp volunteers. Or that what started as a student project would blossom into a much larger, much broader undertaking. A decade later, it would include a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization — YEAH, or Youth Empowerment through Arts and Humanities for long — and coed teen rock camps in Murfreesboro, Nashville and New York City.

The cobbled-together collection of musical equipment was still sitting onstage after the first SGRRC showcase performance when a parent rushed up excitedly. "We can't wait until next year!" the mother exclaimed. Anderson, then an 18-year-old college student with no previous management experience, found herself momentarily dumbstruck. At that point, she hadn't even had a chance to think about the next week, much less putting on another camp.

"That's when it clicked," she says. "This is not just a one-year deal."

On an eastbound stretch of I-24 between Nashville and Murfreesboro, a billboard for a brand of high-calorie water demonstrates how far we still have not come in our discourse. "Be the girl they sing about," it commands, as if a girl's role in music, in the year 2012, is still limited to passivity — to being that obscure object of desire, even as Taylor Swift has made a fortune several times over making "Dear John" letters into hit songs.

In February, Village Voice music editor Maura Johnston took to the paper's Sound of the City blog to blast the sexist condescension that is still palpable in some male critics' writing. Her post, "How Not To Write About Female Musicians: A Handy Guide," eviscerates the lazy, double-standard tropes that stubbornly persist: overemphasis on looks and sexual appeal, conflation of female artists with other female artists they sound nothing like, refusal to engage seriously with music that doesn't speak to specifically male concerns.

So while to some, an all-girls rock camp may seem like a quaint notion, in the wake of Joan Jett, Sleater-Kinney and the Alabama Shakes' Brittany Howard, Anderson knows better. "There is still work to be done," she says.

Kate Fox, a 16-year-old camper from Atlanta, illustrates this point with an anecdote. "Some boys at my school saw me carrying my guitar," she says, as her band Echidna Cafeteria carouses outside a practice room. "They said, 'I bet it's just for show.' " This is her third consecutive year at the camp.

"I love it," Fox says. "I can express my feelings. And here you don't have to worry about boys putting you down." She pauses a moment to size up a male reporter and adds, "No offense."

Jessica Hopper, music critic and author of The Girls Guide to Rocking, calls camps such as SGRRC "essential."

"Boys have always had that permission to be loud and self-expressive," she says via email from Chicago. "Rock camps value and encourage young women in a way that the wider world often does not."

Anderson doesn't disagree. But she also says she's seen a profound shift in Murfreesboro just in the 10 years SGRRC has been operating. "I can see the change like night and day," she says. Katie Blankenship, current co-director of the camp, agrees. She says there were plenty of women out at shows in the early 2000s, but rarely in bands.

"I was scared to death to get onstage and think about playing in a band and putting myself out there that way," Blankenship recalls. "And I think Southern Girls Rock and Roll Camp had a huge impact on changing that."

Lizzie Connor, the other co-director this year, says she had always been what she calls the "token girl" in bands. In addition to cementing her love of writing and performing, SGRRC really awakened her feminism. After attending the camp for two years, she became a volunteer as soon as she could.

"It was huge for me to start being more vocal about our mission — about empowering girls," she says, "because there is this prejudice and discrimination against girls in the music industry and in the world."

Anderson says the reason she started the camp was simple enough: "There just aren't enough women doing this," she says of her mindset at the time, "and more girls need to know how empowering and how much fun this is." The environment has changed noticeably, if not completely. For her part, Blankenship says, "I know more female musicians than male musicians out on the scene."

But an all-girls camp still makes sense, no matter how far the broader context evolves.

"Even if it came to be that there were more women playing music than men," Anderson says, "there are experiences that can be shared — you know, just like having girls' sports teams. They can be together and not worry so much about the differences that are occurring at that key age."

One night, Jessi Wariner was up late, and couldn't believe her eyes when a commercial for SGRRC flashed across the TV screen. Before she could find the phone, her best friend Alex was already calling: "Did you just see that?!" she exclaimed. "We gotta go!"

Soon thereafter, Wariner and three of her friends signed up to join the camp's 2003 inaugural class — which also included Jemina Pearl (née Abegg), who went on to front the breakout Nashville punk band Be Your Own Pet, which just two years later would sign a record deal with XL Recordings in the U.K. Other alumni include Rachel Durnin, now of the indie-pop outfit How Cozy!, country singer Dylan Taylor, a songwriter at Next Century Music, and artist-musician Heather Moulder of Hatch Show Print, who was inspired to pursue printmaking in a workshop led by Grand Palace's Bingham Barnes and plays with fellow volunteer Olivia Throckmorton in Don Coyote.

On the cover of the Aug. 14, 2003, issue of the Nashville Scene, a 12-year-old Wariner, standing inside oversized bell-bottoms patched together from scraps of denim and corduroy, holds a heavily collaged bass guitar she had borrowed from a family friend.

"At the time, I didn't know many musicians my age, especially not female players," Wariner recalls. "Not that I felt like I should be exclusively playing with girls." Though campers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and experience levels, Wariner sounds a familiar theme: "I was too shy and self-conscious around boys at that age to figure out how to break loose as a musician."

Wariner had always dreamed of playing music professionally, and rock camp ignited something in her that she had sensed but couldn't realize. "My dad's family were musicians, so I had been around it all my life," she says. "But they were also all boys, and it was quite intimidating at times. I was looking for something to bring me out of my shell."

If there was ever a shell holding Wariner in, you would never guess that now, watching her perform with Those Darlins, the band she started with Anderson and two other SGRRC volunteers. Fans know her as Jessi Zazu Darlin — a snarling, guitar-wielding dervish with a wicked drawl and a wild stage presence that's equal parts punk rock and backwoods country. She sounds every bit the kind of woman who could sing a riposte to the Louvin Brothers' cautionary tale "You're Running Wild" and have none other than Charlie Louvin himself endorse it. ("Wild One" is the song that put the Darlins on most listeners' radar.)

"The first year was the first time I ever played in a rock band in front of an audience," Wariner says — another part of her experience that's common among campers. And while not every girl who attends SGRRC goes on to play in a band professionally or go on tour, that's beside the point, Wariner explains. "It's more about being in an environment where folks are saying, 'You can do whatever you put your mind to,' that makes it so special." Wariner attended camp for five years, and volunteered for three after that, before a rigorous touring schedule made it difficult to commit the time.

"I am grateful to all the wonderful people who have been involved in SGRRC and continue to be," she says. "They made rock 'n' roll high school a reality for me."

Zig-zagging swiftly through the halls of the Wright Music Building, a set of keys jangling on her hip, Blankenship checks in on each of the 15 camper bands as they perfect their original songs for Saturday night's finale. The names the campers have chosen for themselves range from the covertly clever — Muktuk is an Inuit word for whale blubber — to the ironically meta — take Various Names With the Word Fire, for instance.

The songs they generate run the gamut from bright neo-folk to moody, introspective rock. Over a bouncy chord progression, the band Pop Rocks sings with a cheery delivery that belies their song's sarcasm: "But I don't care if you like Call of Duty 3 / More than me / And I don't care that you asked how much I weighed / Before our date." Other songs feature comedic interludes, one-note keyboard solos and rap breakdowns.

Flanked by her lieutenants — volunteers Dave Cate, once a camper at YEAH's coed Tennessee Teens Rock Camp, and keyboardist Matt Rowland — Blankenship makes sure the bands and their volunteer managers are on task and making progress. The presence of Cate and Rowland, along with the many other male volunteers who teach everything from multi-track recording to drums, sets SGRRC apart from other girls' rock camps.

"I think it's really important to show that men can be feminists too," Wariner says. "And it's a very good thing for young girls to have positive male influences in their lives." For the campers, the gender makeup of the staff doesn't seem to matter, if it registers at all. Dave, as the campers call him, is the guy who teaches recording and runs sound. Matt is the goofy dude who got an entire keyboard class synced into the same software session and made it sound like Skrillex.

The larger mission of YEAH — actively encouraging young people to create empowering, community-building endeavors using music and the arts — is not gender-specific. But everyone involved sees it as an extension of what SGRRC has built and continues to build.

"We believe that the coed camps still have a feminist mission," Blankenship says. "To get to a place where we are finally on equal footing, you have to do it entirely involving everybody. And we're growing to that."

Inside MTSU's ample and newly renovated Tucker Theatre on Saturday night, the girls perform to a nearly packed house. Just as they had for Wanda Jackson's set the day before, the campers crowd the front of the stage to cheer each other on.

One band at a time, they count off the beat. They strum, they throw glitter and balloons on the audience; they mess up. They laugh. They sing bravely and defiantly, and in breathtaking harmonies.

To close the night, the week and the decade, the volunteers all take up instruments, and the campers all join them in filling the entire stage — everyone playing and dancing together in a chaotic superband jam that builds to a dizzy crescendo of guitar solos and cymbal-smashes. After the show's over, as the girls mill around the lobby, their eyes searching the room as they say their goodbyes, they look much like ordinary kids.

But up on the stage, with the amps still roaring and the entire camp population bouncing in ecstatic unison, it's easy to imagine this motley, centipedal force bursting out of the hall en masse and marching down I-24 to tear that "be the girl they sing about" billboard right off its scaffolding.

And in a way, they already have.


Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct a quote by Kate Fox, which was incorrectly attributed to Erika Sisk

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