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NATIONAL | summer 2006

XX-Rated Rockers
Women play it loud at Ladies Rock Camp.

Above: "Lady" rocker Cindy Thompson of Portland, Photo: Nikki Costa

“Drums are supposed to be loud!” It’s the first day of Ladies Rock Camp, and the three of us in the beginning drum class are tapping timidly at our snare drums. Our instructor, Shawna, is trying to dissuade us from this un-rock-’n’-roll approach. “Go ahead and hit them!” she tells us. “Hard!”

Ladies Rock Camp (LRC) is the grown-up version of, and a fundraiser for, the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls (www.girlsrockcamp.org), a 5-year-old Portland-based nonprofit that seeks to enhance girls’ self-esteem through music. The girls attend for a full week each summer, but we ladies—38 women ranging in age from 24 to 61—had only a weekend in May to live out our rock-star fantasies.

After two hours of instrument instruction on Friday, it was time for band formation. Around the room hung signs naming musical genres: Indie Rock. Punk. Hip-Hop/Soul. We gravitated toward our genre of choice, then coalesced into bands. That is, everyone else did. As the lonely volunteer under the “Country” sign, I hoped fellow campers would know I was thinking of indie country-rocker Neko Case, not chart-topper Faith Hill. Finally, along came one kindred spirit, an aspiring bassist and fellow journalist, who suggested adding the prefix “alt-” to the sign. Then others found us: a pharmacist (guitar), database engineer (lead vocals) and software development engineer (guitar and drums). We called ourselves Dry County, and together wrote two songs with as many country images as we could muster: pickup trucks, whiskey, porches, mamas, dogs and railroad tracks.

“The story of women in rock ’n’ roll is a story of struggle,” singer-songwriter and Portland State University professor Sarah Dougher told us at a Saturday workshop. Witness, she said, Big Mama Thornton’s saucy, swinging 1953 version of Hound Dog,” then compare it to the rhythmically simpler, decidedly more vanilla rendition that made Elvis a household name three years later. “To say Elvis ‘stole’ Big Mama Thornton’s song is not correct,” said Dougher. To say Big Mama Thornton was the victim of racism and sexism in the music industry is correct.”

During the rest of the weekend, we practiced until our voices cracked and our arms ached. (“This blister,” said Becca, our bass player, holding her pointer finger aloft, “is a badge of honor!”) No matter that most of us had never picked up our instruments before Friday: On Sunday afternoon, Dry County and nine other camper bands performed original songs before a packed crowd at the Portland club Nocturnal. Between ticket and merchandise sales, camp tuition and camper donations, the weekend raised some $10,000 for the Rock ’n’ Roll Camp for Girls.

At the showcase, I met family members of my fellow campers. “Your wife rocks,” I told several. “Your mom rocks,” I told others. Whether we returned home as guitar aficionados or simply women who had learned to make some noise, that night we were rock stars, every one.