Written by: Robbie Ward
Originally published in The Bluegrass Standard
Acclaimed fiddler Brandon Godman grew up in rural northern Kentucky playing bluegrass music, an important part of his identity.
After college, he left his native state for Nashville to perform professionally in a bluegrass band. He loved the music and many values associated with the genre – kinship, love, connectedness, learning from one another, just to name a few.
But the musician also had another important part of his life he kept secret from most people in the Nashville bluegrass scene: He was gay. Growing up in rural Appalachia, Godman was exposed to some people who discriminated against others who were different. He worried this part of his life could affect his career as a bluegrass musician. And it did.
When Godman was 21, someone shared with others, without his permission, that he was gay. Shortly after, he was kicked out of the band in which he performed.
“It was an absolute collision of two of my worlds I'd been very active in, but kept so completely separate,” Godman said.
He found work with a different band, but still felt the sting of professional and financial consequences related to others knowing his sexual orientation. Godman moved from Nashville to San Francisco in 2016 to work as a violin and bow dealer. He also connected with Grammy Award-winning bluegrass performer Laurie Lewis and joined her band, the Right Hands.
Thanks to an effort by the California Bluegrass Association (CBA), Godman and other musicians can now embrace their love for bluegrass while also finding acceptance of their sexual orientation.
They call it Bluegrass Pride, a formal effort to let the world know bluegrass music is for everyone. Volunteers with Bluegrass Pride have had a presence at bluegrass events through information tables and found a larger role at a major event in the Bay area.
Ted Kuster, CBA’s area vice president for San Francisco, said the idea for Bluegrass Pride emerged in 2016 after a group of members began brainstorming ways to connect with different audiences and younger generations.
“The last thing on the list was ‘let’s get a float in the Pride Parade,’” said Kuster, a banjo player and son of a preacher. “Before you knew it, people were starting to organize it.”
Discussion about connecting Bluegrass with the 2017 San Francisco Pride Parade involved opposition saying the music shouldn’t be used for political purposes. Kuster said he and others saw Bluegrass Pride as an opportunity to make the music accessible to people who might not know much about it.
“It has a set of stereotypes associated with it,” Kuster said. “One is we’re not very welcoming. That’s never been true and we needed something to bring it home.”
Others in the Association argued that the gospel roots of the organization were enough to keep it from joining a parade to celebrate people of different sexual orientations.
“We had a lot of respectful conversations about it and agreed to disagree,” Kuster said.
Bluegrass Pride’s float in the June parade brought a presence previously never seen nor heard at the famous West Coast event. It featured three bands, including Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, and more than 100 others walking alongside the float with instruments, smiles, and love.
Among the performers on the float was Godman. Once again, two of his worlds merged, this time in the best possible way.
“It was the most beautiful collision that could happen,” he said. “We had lots of people tell us ‘thank you for what you’re doing.’”
The San Francisco Pride Parade community embraced the bluegrass presence of live music. Among the 271 parade contingents, the California Bluegrass Association’s Bluegrass Pride parade was voted best overall, a milestone achievement for a first-time contingent to win the top overall prize.
The CBA plans to return Bluegrass Pride to the San Francisco parade this year and continues to see other outreach opportunities. Kara Kundert, social media director for Bluegrass Pride, said creating a regular Bluegrass Pride music series in the Bay Area has been a priority for discussion.
The success of Bluegrass Pride has caught the attention of musicians in other areas. Oregon Bluegrass Pride will join the Portland Pride Parade this year, and bluegrass musicians in Vancouver have also reached out about creating their own outreach.
For fiddler Godman, he said efforts in the bluegrass world to embrace everyone have helped him feel more at home with the music he grew up hearing and performing.
“It's an honor for the music to touch people of all backgrounds,” he said. “It has a universal language.”