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Interview with Kara Kundert, Bluegrass Pride's First Executive Director

Image of Kara Kundert, Bluegrass Pride's Executive Director, at the 2018 SF Pride Parade.

Here at BGP, we’d like to feel like we accomplished a lot this year. In spite of a global pandemic, political unrest and so much more, we were still able to work with artists and showcase their work, plus provide them with a few checks to plug the gaps left by an eviscerated music industry.

Yes, this year has been hard, but it’s not been all bad. We’re really proud of the work we’ve done and we hope it’s left even a small impact on you. In that spirit, we’ll be sharing a few stories from our team and artists who were impacted positively by Bluegrass Pride’s work this year.

We hope you’ll take a moment to listen to their experiences and hear about how we continue to make bluegrass more inclusive and diverse this year, and every year since we started. To kick things off, we chatted with our very own Executive Director Kara Kundert, a young leader in this genre if ever there was one.

After listening to Kara, you might be moved to consider what you can do to get involved, and to make sure bluegrass stays as queer as it always has been. Remember that you can donate to Bluegrass Pride any time of year, but especially as 2020 draws to a close, year-end giving helps us so much to keep pushing onward—to keep up the forward roll, if you will. We hope you’ll be inspired by her words and moved to give, if you can.

Let’s hear from Kara!

BGP: Can you talk a little about your personal love for bluegrass? How did you come to love the music?

Kara: I fell in love with bluegrass as a kid, though I didn't have the words for it then. I really wanted to learn how to fiddle, and my parents got me a violin and put me into classical lessons and I hated it. Bluegrass and American traditional music didn't become a big part of my life until I was 20 and my friend introduced me to the Punch Brothers during a really dark and challenging time. That beautiful, bright mandolin melody of "This Girl" just sunk its teeth into me.

BGP: What inspired you to be the youngest person in the room at the first BGP planning meeting, and why did you step up to take on a huge social media project?

Image of Kara Kundert, Bluegrass Pride's first Executive Director, at the 2017 SF Pride Parade.

Kara: When I started getting involved with the Bay Area bluegrass scene, I signed up for this pickers listserv that sent out information to folks about local shows and jams. One day I got an email invitation cluing folks into the fact that this project was happening. The email gave a date, time, and address, and also said that there would be pizza. For a grad student at Berkeley at the time, I was like, "Yes, this is perfect! I'm gay, I play bluegrass, and I live for free food. Where do I sign?" 

Eventually someone brought up that we should start a Facebook page, and I was like, "Oh, I can do that!" I didn't fit in anywhere else, I didn't have other useful experience, but I was pretty sure I could figure out how to start a Facebook page and put content up about the project.

BGP: Talk a little about that historic social project and how it won Best Overall Contingent Award at SF Pride. How did you make it happen, and how did it feel?

Kara: Winning Best Overall Contingent is still something that I can't really explain. Bluegrass Pride had a small but mighty audience behind it. SF Pride didn't really tell us about the nomination or how to campaign for the prize. I think I realized that the poll was open for votes less than a week before it was going to close, so I just frantically sent the word out to everyone I could think of: I posted to our socials about the nomination, I sent out a newsletter with the poll link, I emailed it my coworkers and family and friends.

It was exciting and very haphazard -- present-day me would have handled it much differently, but it worked! We were nominated against huge contingents like Glide Memorial Church and Planned Parenthood of Northern California. Small but mighty won the day!

BGP: Talk about creating the first LGBTQ+ Musicians' Showcase at IBMA's World of Bluegrass festival. How did it feel to see queer bluegrassers represented at WOB for the first time?

Kara: It was a really emotional experience. That first year, we partnered with The Handsome Ladies in order to share costs, and we booked three bands to play: Lonely Heartstring Band, Che Apalache, and Justin Hiltner & Jon Weisberger. Unfortunately, Justin had recently been diagnosed with cancer and had to cancel his trip to Raleigh to start treatment. So we ended up swapping out Justin & Jon with a classic IBMA-style super jam featuring Brandon Godman, Ben Garnett, Tristan Scroggins, Molly Tuttle, and more. So the music was incredible.

More than that, the energy was just out of this world. Everyone who was playing was so happy and grateful to have a specifically queer and inclusive platform to celebrate and play this music. The audience kept growing and growing until we had a completely full house -- standing room only. At IBMA! For gay bluegrass! Everyone in the audience could feel it was a special show, and everyone on stage was feeling loved and supported in that moment. It was incredible.

BGP: How has being a part of Bluegrass Pride impacted you? What are some things that have changed about your life?

Kara: Well, my whole career changed so that's one (laughs)! During the first two years of Bluegrass Pride, I was pursuing a PhD in astrophysics. Now I'm out of academia and I live and breathe nonprofits all day every day.

But more than that it has taught me a great deal: about myself, what matters to me, how to manage projects and operate with professionalism, how to really multitask and juggle priorities. It introduced me to my absolute favorite people in the world and has allowed me to explore and appreciate my queerness in ways that I didn't have access to before.

I am so grateful that my path took me here.

BGP: How has Bluegrass Pride changed your opinion about bluegrass music and the people who create it?

Kara: I've always had tremendous respect for musicians and all of the people who make the music industry work, and that hasn't changed.

But this experience has introduced me to a much broader and deeper level of appreciation. I have discovered so many incredibly talented artists that I really doubt I would have stumbled on without the connections I have made through Pride, and have met so many creative and innovative writers, engineers, festival organizers, and event planners. It has given me a great deal of gratitude for the full community. 

BGP: As Executive Director, what are your big picture goals for the next 3-5 years? 

Kara: Oh this is a big question! A lot of it isn't up to me -- the Board of Directors really sets the big picture of the organization, I just pitch them ideas and carry things out.

But there are some things that I'm very excited about, including the forthcoming Safe Venue Directory and its partner, the Home Stay Network. Both of these projects will have a big impact on the Bluegrass Pride community: giving artists the tools and resources they need to safely get back on the road, while empowering our audience with knowledge of venues they can be proud to support. Those will be very impactful to the folks that we work with, especially as we climb out of the pandemic.

BGP: What would you say to someone who is feeling a little left out of the music industry and thinking about getting involved in Bluegrass Pride? 

Kara: We want you and we need you! Our motto as an organization is that bluegrass is for everyone. So for the folks out there who love the sound of a banjo or a fiddle but you don't see a place for yourself yet, we want you to know you're welcome at our table. If you want to strum a guitar but don't know how, or if you're a music industry professional looking for paid work and assistance with career and professional development, we will be there for you!

And if you have questions about Bluegrass Pride or an idea for a new program that you'd like to see us offer, shoot me an email and we can start making it happen. 

***

Y’all heard that, right? Kara’s personal invite to get involved with Bluegrass Pride, whatever that looks like for you! If that means giving, and if you’re able, we’d be grateful for your support.

You can donate to Bluegrass Pride online, and we appreciate each and every gift.

We look forward to making 2021 our most impactful year yet with your help!


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