Bluegrass Pride at IBMA

Written by: Kara Kundert

Originally published in the December 2017 edition of the CBA Bluegrass Breakdown

It’s an unfortunate truth that the world sees bluegrass as a holdover from a previous era, stuck in its outdated ways and mindsets. But with the resurgence of the American folk revival in the past decade, we’ve seen extraordinary new interest in bluegrass as an art form. With that new interest has come a revolution, an infusion of new minds and new ideas.

On a day to day level, this has mostly caused an uptick in what some would call “progressive bluegrass” and others would scoff at and say “that ain’t bluegrass”. But over the long term, as the years progress and the new members gain their footing in the community, the norms and standards are also starting to change.

At this year’s IBMA World of Bluegrass conference and festival, the recurring and undeniable theme of the week was diversity and inclusion. Kicking off with a powerhouse keynote address by Rhiannon Giddens, the 2016 Steve Martin Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass Music award recipient and 2017 MacArthur Fellow, and reaching a fever pitch on Thursday night with Molly Tuttle’s historic win for Guitar Player of the Year, an undeniable energy rippled through every room and venue, shining a spotlight into the previously dark corners of bluegrass. Throughout the week, events, panel discussions, and performances elevated and celebrated the full rainbow of bluegrass pickers – including a strong showing by our very own Bluegrass Pride.

Armed with a winning showing at this year’s SF Pride and 500 fresh new rainbow buttons, Bluegrass Pride hit IBMA with force. Starting Tuesday morning, two representatives (newly inaugurated CBA board member Yennie Dee Brecheisen and myself) took to the floor of the World of Bluegrass conference to pass out swag, network with industry professionals, and give elevator pitches to anyone who would listen.

Our main event of the week, a celebratory and informational brunch on Friday afternoon was designed to gather anyone that was interested in our movement and to give them the tools needed to start their own local Bluegrass Pride celebrations. At the early, early hour of 2:00 PM, we packed the CBA Suite full of enthusiastic people from all over the nation and the world. Over coffee and bagels, we discussed how Bluegrass Pride came to be, and what worked and what didn’t in our inaugural year. Most importantly, we pitched ideas for how to kick off Bluegrass Pride celebrations in other cities and states.

A frequent comment was, “Oh sure, of course you could do this in California. I love Bluegrass Pride, but it simply won’t fly in my hometown.” And while California as a whole may be a bastion of progressive politics, I would argue that you can’t say the same for the California Bluegrass Association.

Just as would be true anywhere else, the CBA relies heavily on the time and devotion of our older members to stay afloat. Combine that with a membership split roughly half and half between bleeding heart liberal urban members and more conservative Central Valley members, and you find that the CBA tends to be much more moderate than California as a whole. It’s one of the rare places in modern society where we get opportunities to reach across the aisle and have gentle and levelheaded conversations with folks from varied political backgrounds.

You might say, “of course Bluegrass Pride started in California.” But that ignores the reckoning the CBA went through to bring Bluegrass Pride into the world last year. Many of our members were wary of the idea of entering a float in SF Pride, fearing it would irrevocably alter our association into something foreign and out of step with their world. There were even a handful of people who stood so strongly opposed that they left the association entirely. The decision to pursue Bluegrass Pride was not one made lightly, but rather with our eyes on the horizon.

Meaningful change is rarely an easy thing to bring about. There’s a reason that it took until 2017 for any bluegrass association to celebrate Pride. It fell to California to fight for this, and to accomplish something amazing as a result. We should be proud of the progress that we’ve made, yes, but we should also take a moment to reflect on what more can be done to ease the growing pains that come with this kind of progress and how we can make more room for every member in our community over the long haul.

This year’s IBMA World of Bluegrass was a confirmation that our music and our community are not in stasis; we are evolving. The path ahead will not always be painless, but we must continue to blaze the trail for the sake of our future. The CBA is now part of the changing tide of bluegrass, not a mere observer or participant, but a leader. We have staked our claim in the annals of our genre. I look forward to seeing the innumerable ways that the new leaders of our community will continue to stake their own.

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