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

Rebel Girls

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."

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