Written by: Kara Kundert
And her pretty voice is rising up to ask you
Like I once did like I'm about to
If you could show her the way -- Punch Brothers, "This Girl"
Born and raised in the Silicon Valley of California, I could not have been more removed from traditional bluegrass if I had tried. Instead of fiddle tunes and rolling banjos, I grew up with Bach and the Beatles.
It was in college that I made my first contact with American roots music and with my sexuality. Personal trauma turned my world upside down in the spring of 2012, and I began searching my life and my surroundings for answers, for ways to move forward. I found the key in a song: “This Girl” by Punch Brothers. Those bright opening mandolin notes pierced the darkness around me like a lighthouse on a clear night, and I was hooked. I immediately went and bought a mandolin, eager to grasp that joyous melody for myself.
After a few months I’d learned two more things: One, that mandolin is really, really hard and it would be a long time coming before I could ever play that song.
And two, I wasn't as straight as I had thought.
I was back on campus in the fall, wading through the most challenging time of my life, but a part of me was focused somewhere else. I struggled with strum patterns and two-finger chords, trying to string together songs that I knew the words to. And I pined for the cute fiddle-playing girl who lived next door, wishing I knew what to say to her. In whispered tones and behind closed doors, I first sang about loving women, as though trying it on for size. It was scary that it fit. It was exciting too.
In December 2012, I dropped out of school and left her behind me. We’d barely exchanged a few sentences in the months we'd lived next door to each other, but it was its own little heartbreak. Not long after, I came out as bisexual to my dad in a café over a bowl of macaroni and cheese.
My life came back to equilibrium -- I kept healing and eventually returned to my education -- but my love for acoustic and roots music never abated. I expanded my horizons and listened to more artists, both traditional and progressive. I studied the origins of the genre and the history of the instruments. The more I learned, the more I wanted to know. It was like being pulled into orbit: a gentle but accelerating descent. In 2015, I finally learned my first fiddle tune and began to really play.
Now, as I start my PhD, I struggle to practice as much as my heart wants me to. But I never really stop. This is where I belong. No community has ever welcomed me as warmly as bluegrass. In a world filled with biphobia, misogyny, and victim blaming attitudes, bluegrass has never made me feel excluded. Even as an utter beginner, I have been relentlessly encouraged and lifted up by people around me. I am so lucky. I have found my home. I have found my family.
Bluegrass came to me when I needed it most. I can honestly say that it saved my life. It twines around so much of me and where I am today -- my recovery, my sexuality, my community. It is the context in which I live each day.
These days I’m working on "This Girl" -- that bright welcoming mandolin lead, that slightly whimsical chopping rhythm. It's hard as hell, but it fills my heart past the brim.