Written by: Lily Melody
As the end of Pride Month approaches we were recently made aware of the wonderful news that the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA), the professional organization for those making their living from bluegrass music, will be sponsoring Bluegrass Pride in 2018.
This is wonderful news for LGBTQ+ folks in the bluegrass community. Our voices have not only been heard but acknowledged. We should all thank the IBMA and welcome this news as a huge step in the right direction.
But as President Josiah Bartlet famously asked, “What’s next?”
We must use the support we have in IBMA to lobby for the organization to step up its game in terms of ensuring that bands, venues, jam organizers, and festival promoters are supportive of LGBTQ+ musicians. IBMA is in a unique position of power in the bluegrass world and it would be negligent of us to not use what influence we have, as groups or individuals, to push for positive decisions to be made in this area.
But we can't stop there. There are other boundaries to push in the bluegrass world.
There are some tremendous women in the bluegrass world receiving well-deserved attention. Incredible young musicians such as Molly Tuttle are in everyone’s mind these days, and before them, we had the likes of the amazing Sally Van Meter on the dobro and the virtuosic Alison Brown on the banjo. Indeed, the most commercially successful artist to emerge from the bluegrass world in Alison Krauss.
Certainly, there is progress being made, for example, IBMA throwing their support behind The Handsome Ladies, an organization for women in bluegrass.
Yet when we look at the lineup of major bluegrass festivals we find that perhaps only a third of the bands have at least one female or femme member. It only gets worse when the bands are on stage, as we see that nine out of ten of the musicians are male.
And what of African Americans?
There would be no bluegrass music without African Americans. For a start, it should go without saying that the banjo -- the most iconic instrument in the genre -- traces its origins to West Africa. The string band music of the early twentieth century which evolved into bluegrass was often performed by black musicians. The influence of blues and jazz on the development of bluegrass are undeniable.
Still, the attendees and performers at bluegrass festivals are almost exclusively white. It’s not the music that’s the problem. I don’t want to be part of a bluegrass community that’s welcoming of me as transgender so long as I am white. So we need to look at can be done to encourage more racial diversity at bluegrass events, and what can be to create environments in which people of all races can feel comfortable.
Bluegrass music has, as you might have read in my last entry, has provided me with great joy, challenge, fulfillment, and a sense of community and belonging. Let us not exclude anybody. Let’s invite them in and show there’s room for everybody.