Folk Duo Cathy & Marcy On How Music Can Foster Inclusion

Photo of Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer by Michael G. Stewart
Folk Duo Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer. Photo by Michael G. Stewart.

Spanning a 35-year career, two Grammy wins and dozens of award nominations, Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer are two of the most iconic singers on the folk and bluegrass scene. Passionate about music from a young age, the multi-instrumentalist duo creates songs for both children and adults, infusing their music with playfulness and affection. They’re also deep-rooted activists who have dedicated their lives and careers to advancing children’s health care and women’s rights, among other issues. We sat down with Cathy and Marcy to find out more about their work and how they became trailblazers in the world of roots music.

Your careers have spanned over 35 years and included two Grammy wins. What’s been your proudest and most memorable moment in music so far?

Cathy and Marcy: It’s impossible to choose one moment. Anytime a parent tells us that our music has helped or entertained their family, we’re happy. Anytime we hear from fans that a song we sing moves them, makes them laugh or cry, or helps them get through a hard situation, we feel like we’ve done what we’re here for. Awards are awesome, but the personal impact of the music is what’s most important to us and that’s really hard to measure. We are most proud of hanging in there, following our dreams in both acoustic roots music and kids/family music, and making a living at it.

What inspires you to create music and has that changed over time?

Cathy and Marcy: Music is simply part of our DNA—it’s both a career and a hobby. On our rare “time off,” we are playing social music with friends, composing, goofing off on ukes or banjos. Over time, we have been able to combine music that we enjoy with messages we feel are important. Sometimes it’s historical, such as our love of the history of women in country music. When composing, we are often working around a theme. We’ve been able to use our music to support social justice issues and organizations that we believe in, and that continues to drive us.

 
“Dinosaurs crossed the road. Men were surprised that women could play bluegrass music. Many studio engineers were condescending and sexist, but many were helpful and gracious and became great mentors.”
 

You’re both vocal advocates of diversity and inclusion. How does your work on these issues feature in your music?

Cathy and Marcy: We spent many years doing programs and recordings that featured the history of women in country music. This included radio shows, TV shows, working with Patsy Montana who was the first woman in country music to sell 1 million records with her song, “I Wanna Be A Cowboy’s Sweetheart” in 1935, and recording the “Blue Rose” album in 1988 with Laurie Lewis, Sally Van Meter and Molly Mason. That recording opened more doors for women in bluegrass and was just named one of the top female bluegrass recordings of all time from The Bluegrass Situation.

That work is also seen and heard in our music for kids and families such as the recent album, “DANCIN’ IN THE KITCHEN: Songs for ALL Families.” The more we can engage young people in celebrating and respecting diversity, the better our world will be. We do this with the themes of the songs, but also, with the diversity of the music.

What challenges have you encountered as musicians that you didn’t expect in the beginning?

Cathy and Marcy: The music business is so full of challenges. We’re not sure anyone expects any of them. In the 1970s, we booked 250 shows a year before there was the Internet, answering machines or cell phones. We used paper maps to find our way from place to place. People actually responded to snail mail. Dinosaurs crossed the road. Men were surprised that women could play bluegrass music. Many studio engineers were condescending and sexist, but many were helpful and gracious and became great mentors. We never expected to make 47 recordings both for the commercial and corporate worlds. We knew from day one that to make a living at this, having a wide variety of skills would be important. Playing music for kids was looked down on by our peers in the early days, but now half of them are doing it too! Every challenge is an opportunity. We try to focus on the opportunities and when a challenge becomes an obstacle, there is either another way around, someone else who will be helpful, or a different project or different gig to focus on.

 
“The word ‘consume’ gets used with music a lot these days. We prefer to consider music something you participate in or with, even as an active listener.”
 

What would you like to tell the world through your music? What feelings do you hope to inspire in your fans?

Cathy and Marcy: Music is about feeling. We want kids to feel welcome everywhere, we want adults to treat everyone well and be great role models for kids, we want traditional music to live on as a vibrant art form while morphing with contemporary music, we want music to make people think, feel, love, question, and most of all, participate. The word “consume” gets used with music a lot these days. We prefer to consider music something you participate in or with, even as an active listener. We love working with the American Music Therapy Association and helping music therapists use the ukulele and banjo in their practices. We love helping librarians use more music in their storytelling. We love teaching adults to play their own music.

We hope our fans will support music by going to live concerts, purchasing recordings, sharing the music with their friends. We also are always happy to encourage them to make their own music.

Tell us about your new album, “Shout And Shine.”

Cathy and Marcy: Our friendship with Sam Gleaves began five years ago, while we all taught at the Common Ground on the Hill music camp. Sam was 20, and awesome instrumentalist on the fiddle, banjo and guitar, a poignant ballad singer from his southern Virginia tradition, and a beautiful songwriter. We discovered we had many friends in common, and Sam had been listening to our music on CDs for quite a while. Jam sessions happened and then, when we heard Sam in concert, we knew right away that he was an important songwriter—a great wordsmith who told worthy and bold stories.

We asked Sam if we could produce his first album, “Ain’t We Brothers,” titled after his song about a gay coal miner’s fight for equality. Sam was a delight to work with and this experience strengthened our friendship. We started jamming together more and doing shows together when we could, which led to the album, “Shout And Shine.” The title song was based on the “Shout And Shine” showcase during the International Bluegrass Music Association week, sponsored by The Bluegrass Situation and Pinecone Arts. Cathy wrote the song and we were psyched to perform it together. Sam had also written a fun song about the making of moonshine for a musical called “In These Fields,” and it was a perfect fit for the album. Many of the songs honor some of our musical mentors and heroes, some are just plain fun. We close the album with Marcy’s “Closer to the Light” on solo ukulele with harmony vocals. That song has become a theme song for her as a cancer patient and reminds us how precious every day is. In between, we honor Elizabeth Cotten, Alice Gerrard, Sam’s dream “Hot Pink House Trailer”, Mother Maybelle Carter and Jean Ritchie.

Between our songwriting and love of traditional sounds, it’s just a jam session and party putting together arrangements we enjoy. We’re a very tight duo, but Sam is such a beautiful harmony singer that he easily finds a third part that makes the sound round, warm and awesome. This is a very organic group—we play what we want, how we want and enjoy every minute of it!