Written by: Lily Melody
I started playing bluegrass at the age of 16, after having become fascinated with the sounds of such luminaries as Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, and most of all the inimitable Earl Scruggs. As a young person growing up in the United Kingdom, a love for bluegrass music was not something I could easily share with my peers. I had never listened to a great deal of mainstream popular music. My previous listening had mostly been jazz and swing. Perhaps not seen as cool, but certainly not as socially unacceptable as bluegrass.
It has, therefore, not always easy being a bluegrass musician or listener. The very term “bluegrass” carries negative connotations for many people. Be it images of tobacco chewing toothless hillbillies with moonshine jugs, Confederate flags, or an incorrectly perceived lack of sophistication in the music, “bluegrass” often conjures up ideas of uneducated backwardness.
Despite this, the joy of the music never left and I always had the support of my family for my musical endeavours. It was, however, attending my first bluegrass camp that made this music an indispensable part of my life.
Packing my bags and a dobro I couldn’t play well, I ventured into an unknown and scary world. By the end of the week, I had made many new friends, gained the respect of great musicians, and felt a great sense of acceptance.
Over the following few years, bluegrass music played an increasingly important role in my life. I have had the good fortune of performing with world-class musicians, devoted countless hours to listening to the music and studying its lore, and learned the opportunities and challenges being a musician brings. More than anything though, the music and the camaraderie that comes with it have helped me get through some of the toughest times of my life.
The one thing I found challenging was reconciling the apparent conservatism of the bluegrass community with my strongly held political and social convictions. Over time, however, I would come to believe that the music could heal such divides.
Then the year 2016 came along with two things that threatened my love of bluegrass and my pride in being a musician in that genre.
First, I was able to begin to accept (after 14 years of trying) that I am transgender.
Secondly, the process of increased political polarisation across the world reached a tipping point.
Once again, I became ashamed of my association with bluegrass music for it’s perceived extreme social conservatism. I also felt, for the first time, unsafe at the idea of being part of that community. Perhaps I would be alright in the UK, but what if I wanted to go to Nashville, or attend a bluegrass festival in America?
I decided to tell some of my friends and acquaintances in the bluegrass community about my gender identity. To date, I have been accepted with open arms and love and support, including from some people I have considered my heroes for the last decade. I started to feel hope.
Then I discovered Bluegrass Pride. I was thrilled to find out that there was an organisation which was dedicating itself to inclusivity in the bluegrass world. It made me realise that there is potential for progress. It demonstrated to me that not only were there individuals with open hearts in our community, but also people with a commitment to ensuring that the warmth and caring of the wider bluegrass world isn’t offered only to those who conform to only one idea of love or gender. I know now that there are spaces in the bluegrass world where I will be simply accepted as a person who plays the dobro, not just as a transgender peculiarity. Hopefully, over time, the work of Bluegrass Pride and others will allow us all to feel safety and acceptance. For now, it is not possible to know how many of us in the bluegrass community fall under the “queer umbrella”. I believe that Bluegrass Pride shows all those out there who feel unable to express themselves that they are not alone and that positive change has already begun.
Finally, what of the music itself and its perception? While bluegrass music itself has become more diverse, having diversity among the community of listeners and musicians will do wonders for the public perception of the music. Only then will it cease to be seen by the wider as the reserve of a particular part of rural white America, and be recognised as a vibrant, eclectic, and challenging musical genre with an equally wonderful and colourful group of people at its heart.
Let’s make bluegrass cross the divides of sexual orientation and gender identities. Let’s show to everyone that bluegrass music and the camaraderie that comes with will bring joy, and help everyone through the tough times of their own lives.