Bluegrass Pride, the Gift that Keeps on Giving

Written by: Matt Lauer

When Ted Kuster first told me about entering a float in the San Francisco Pride Parade in early 2017, I thought it would be a great way to expose two million people to Bluegrass Music but I was worried we would only get a handful of people to sign up for such crazy idea.  I mean seriously - Bluegrass music in the SF Pride Parade, I never heard of anything like that before which is probably why I was drawn to the idea immediately. I figured we would have some fun, pick some music, probably would not cost too much and who knows, we may even find a couple of new fans of Bluegrass music.  From these humble beginnings, Bluegrass Pride has turned into something way bigger than I could have imagined.

The first indication that this “crazy idea” was more than fun little bluegrass project was at the California Bluegrass Association’s Board meeting in January 2017 where Ted presented the idea to the CBA for approval.  I figured after staying up until 5 AM pickin' bluegrass in Bakersfield, this topic would take all of 2 minutes because everyone wanted to either get back to playing or take a nap. Ted did not ask for money, did not ask for any help from the CBA, all we needed was the CBA’s insurance rider for the parade. Easy, right?  

Well, two things happened at the meeting that made an impression on me. The first was that it was not a unanimous vote. It surprised me that there was a contingent of folks in our organization that thought presenting bluegrass music to an audience of millions was somehow not a good idea. As best as I could tell, Pride was somehow too political or divisive for the CBA to get involved.  The other was there was a small group of passionate CBA members that showed up that day to speak in favor of Bluegrass Pride. After a good bit discussion and debate, the Board passed the resolution and Bluegrass Pride was off to the races.

I moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1990’s from Chicago, where I had just discovered bluegrass music, so I have been picking in the scene for over 20 years.  I thought I either knew or knew of just about every picker in the Bay Area. Man, was I wrong. Bluegrass Pride was not just an idea anymore. As June approached, lots of good friends showed up to help, then friends of friends started to join in, then folks who I had never heard of or met started to show up too and the community just kept growing.  It got even more serious when some of my musical heroes decided to get involved. Kathy Kallick, Laurie Lewis, Molly Tuttle, Brandon Godman, just to name a few, had either been involved from the get-go or had agreed to support the cause once it was rolling. I had no idea just how deep the well of bluegrass lovers was here in the Bay and Bluegrass Pride was drawing them all out to support the cause of those who identify as LGBTQ in bluegrass.

It wasn’t all good times and pickin' parties though. I had always just enjoyed my little pocket of bluegrass and had never really spent any time thinking about these issues. Honestly, I never even knew they existed.  As the project moved forward and I heard stories about how some folks had been made to feel like there was no place for them, my eyes began to be opened to the dark side of bluegrass. They were opened further after hearing stories about how identifying as LGBTQ made it harder to be a professional bluegrass musician.  All I could think was, what does someone’s ability to play music have to do with identifying as LGBTQ? And is it not hard enough to be a professional bluegrass musician?!? These stories made little sense to me and sure did not jive with my experience with bluegrass music. I have always known bluegrass music to be one of the most open and inviting kinds of music to play and to listen to.  When I learned there was a group of people who had not been welcomed, it went against everything I know bluegrass music to be. I had never heard these voices before. Bluegrass Pride provided the education that I needed to see the music I love wasn’t all fiddle tunes and G runs. We needed to do better. We were going to do better and I was going to be a part of it.

Now we all know how the story goes from there.  It wasn’t just Ted and a couple of his buddies picking on the back of flatbed truck in the Pride Parade in the hopes of getting a few more people to listen to bluegrass music.  The Bluegrass Pride contingent had hundreds of people, from every different background and from all around the country, all marching together in support of the idea that bluegrass is for everyone and that everyone is welcome.  Bluegrass Pride was not anything like I was expecting when the idea first came around. It has made me appreciate bluegrass on a whole new level. It has also taught me that if we want bluegrass to thrive, then we need to make sure it is accessible to everyone and that our door is always open.    

To anyone who may still have any sort of reservations about Bluegrass Pride being a positive influence to the Bluegrass scene, I can only say that in my twenty years of Bay Area bluegrass, I can’t remember a time that the local bluegrass and old-time music scene has felt so alive and full of energy.  Bluegrass Pride has allowed for much of this to happen. I have witnessed it firsthand. As the organization hits its stride for its second season, the idea that bluegrass is for everyone is alive and growing. Bluegrass Pride is creating a community of people, artists, and music that make the future of bluegrass music in the Bay Area and beyond look very bright.  It is my hope that bluegrass music continues to expand and that everyone can experience the joys of this music, no matter who you are, where you come from, or what your sexual orientation is. I also hope that anyone reading this will consider joining us on Sunday, June 24 for the 2018 Pride Parade in San Francisco.

So come on in, the door is open. There is plenty of room for everyone, all you need is a little Bluegrass Pride.   

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