Written by: Joe Troop
I fell in love with bluegrass music the night before I decided to hide that I was gay.
In the fall of 1997, my 9th-grade class took a field trip to Camp Eagle’s Nest in Pisgah Forest, western North Carolina. I’d spent a lot of time running around the woods in the Piedmont, but I had never been in such a mystical forest. The air was damp and lush, thick moss covered the tree trunks, mist meandered along the canopy. Each breath was pleasure.
The trip started with a hike. A half-dozen camp counselors in their twenties guided us down a ridge and through a ravine. We trekked several hours through intermittent rain, wet and yet comfortably warm, blissfully mud-laden.
The rain let up by late afternoon as we reached our campsite. We set up tents and put on dry clothes while the counselors prepared supper and lit a bonfire. As darkness fell we circled around, and they entertained us with jokes and stories. The whole of the day’s experience had an unusual electricity, moments that change the course of a body's life:
At the end of the night, two of the counselors brought out a banjo and guitar. I don’t recall what they played, probably a couple of standards. But the music sent a surge of psychedelic lightning bolts crystal-fracturing across my imagination. The cosmos had erupted through the earth! Fireside bluegrass upon a night sky was the biggest sound I had ever heard.
The next morning, up and at ‘em. Off to the actual camp. We were in need of a shower.
The bathrooms in the boys’ cabins had two individual showers with white plastic curtains. There wasn’t much space in there, so it made sense to de-robe before stepping in. Gazing in from the doorway, enchantment seized me. I was hypnotized, adrift in the visions of my classmates’ nakedness. I hadn’t yet processed the fact that what I felt towards them was sexual attraction; I had no idea how to frame what I was feeling.
Suddenly, another kid caught me gawking and said directly, “No peeking, Joey!” I felt discovered and alarmed — I slunk over to my bunk bed with racing thoughts, hiding.
Twenty-two years have passed since that trip. I’m currently at home in Buenos Aires during a break in Che Apalache’s touring schedule, all nestled up in my 8th-story apartment with my partner and our Siamese cat. And y’all, did I ever just have the most inspiring phone conversation!
Today was my niece’s last day of 7th grade. She heard I was writing this piece and consented to an interview. When I told her about Bluegrass Pride she exclaimed, “That’s so cool!” Being able to bask in the light of younger generations is a true blessing: in 2019 there is a diversity club at her Weaverville, NC middle school, where students can dialogue about gender and sexual identity in a safe space with adult counselors. When I asked her what she liked about it, she said, “It’s really nice to have friends that you can just talk to about anything.” I am proud to see her explore her own identity so openly at such a young age, and I am really proud of her school for making this a possibility.
While I had been out to myself since that school trip in 1997, I stayed in the closet until 2002, my freshman year of college, which was probably a smart decision. Being gay meant social death in my society, so I had to be patient. Closeted adolescence was absolutely miserable, but it was my only real option. Music quickly became my way of coping.
My bluegrass teachers encouraged me to attend all kinds of jams, festivals and fiddlers conventions, where I made lifelong friends and found a real sense of community. Unfortunately, all things LGBTQ+ were taboo. I wouldn't say that the bluegrass community was much more homophobic than society at large back then. But nowadays, people’s views on the subject are polarized along socioeconomic lines, and bluegrass is by and large blue collar.
Curiously though, bluegrass musicians have the rare possibility of forming friendships across divergent worldviews. There aren’t many spaces in the United States that allow people from radically different backgrounds to make meaningful connections. Festival-goers run the gamut from religious fundamentalists to queer anarchists, but everyone is dead set on hanging out together for a week in some muddy field, picking tunes by firelight and howling at the moon. Shared music is the focal point.
I’ve been privileged to live in foreign societies (Spain, Japan, Argentina) for 14 years, which has allowed me to question my identity and cultivate self-acceptance without being subjected to the status quo of where I was raised. I am acutely aware, though, that not everyone in bluegrass has been so fortunate. Sadly, many remain in the closet, frustrated and lonely, scared to death of losing community.
Back when I was a teenager in NC, there was no such thing as a middle school diversity club, but there is today. We’re a lot closer than we might think to cracking the class conundrum, but we have to engage, and that takes courage. Our support and activism is key right now. These days it’s easy for young people to get online and find community and acceptance, but it’s not the same as finding them in their own communities, like at fiddlers conventions down South. Presence is essential! The more of us there are at these bluegrass gatherings, the more humanized the issue will become.
Anyway, happy pride month, y’all! I hope to see you at Galax in August. Let’s pick one! Just look for the rainbow flag.