Y’all Come: Reclaiming Bluegrass Music

Written by: Tyler Stegall

Just about once a month I have the exact same conversation with a different friend or acquaintance regarding bluegrass music in California. This conversation usually starts with an inquiry regarding my Bluegrass Pride shirt, and that question can usually be summarized as “bluegrass AND pride? How can those two things go together?”. The answers to this question probably come to you with relative ease if you’re a member of the bluegrass community in California. It has been answered already on this blog, answered by the passionate speeches given at various California Bluegrass Association board meetings, and perhaps best answered by the resounding success of the first ever Bluegrass Pride float in last year’s Pride parade in San Francisco.

When thinking about why people don’t see bluegrass as an art form that can be inclusive and open to all, many reasons come to mind. Stereotypes in popular media, a lack of historical context, only having heard a banjo used for comedic purposes, and so on and so forth. What doesn’t usually come to mind for some of us, are the musicians and fans in the bluegrass community who practice intolerance and bigotry. It’s these people who more often than not represent bluegrass in the minds of newcomers and casual observers alike. Is it completely wrong for the uninitiated to have these preconceived notions? I’d argue not.

Consider that a simple search online for Bluegrass Pride will lead you to a few news articles, ones that feature California Bluegrass Association members comparing participation in the Pride parade to a Ku Klux Klan march. Consider that it took until 2017 for a woman (California’s own Molly Tuttle!) to win the guitar player of the year award from the IBMA, 28 years after the award debuted. Remember that it wasn’t that long ago that our own Father's Day Bluegrass Festival had confederate battle flags waving around tents and plastered on t-shirts, the symbolic equivalent of “your kind aren’t welcome here”.

These are the consequences of tolerating intolerance.

For far too long have bluegrass communities tolerated bigotry and exclusion, all for the sake of getting in a circle and playing the music we all feel so passionate about… but while we were plunking away at our instruments of choice to the bluegrass standards we love, we were unwittingly excluding entire groups of people who might have gone on to win IBMA awards and write new bluegrass classics for the next generation.

Things are changing though. Since Bluegrass Pride has taken off there are many new faces in the various bluegrass jams around the Bay Area. The same old songs are being sung in new keys, and we’re well on our way to a better, more inclusive bluegrass music.

This is why Bluegrass Pride is so crucial to the future of this music and community. To me, the Bluegrass Pride movement isn’t just about speaking out against the intolerance that has plagued the bluegrass community. It’s about sending a message louder than any sound a banjo can make. We’re reclaiming this beautiful form of American music, and we’re going to make sure that it’s accessible and enjoyable to all people regardless of their race, gender, or sexuality.

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