When considering the music associated with Pride marches and festivities, bluegrass is unlikely to be the first genre you reach for. This has more to do with stereotypes attached to the bluegrass scene than LGBTQ+ assumptions; the music is generally considered “old timey” with roots in the Appalachian region — two things not associated with tolerance.
But assumptions and stereotypes can be very dangerous things. Bluegrass Pride sprang out of the California Bluegrass Association in 2017, as a means to do outreach.
“It became pretty obvious pretty quickly that this was a message that was much bigger than just California — we immediately received support from bluegrass musicians and fans all over the country, and even from abroad,” says Kara Kundert from Bluegrass Pride. “So, after two years as a project of the CBA, we incorporated as our own nonprofit last year and have been operating independently ever since.”
Kundert is keen to dispel the stereotype that bluegrass fans are all Southern, old and conservative.
“I’ve been continually inspired by the work of organizations like Queer Appalachia, which has been working to dispel the metronormative stereotype of queerness for years,” she says. “The symbol of the LGBTQ+ community is the rainbow — a spectrum of colors representing the broad diversity of ways people can love each other. But as a culture, we only really allow a couple of very binary ways to be gay. I’d like to see us apply that same symbol to queerness itself — there are countless numbers of beautiful and unique ways to be queer. At Bluegrass Pride, we’re proud to fight back against those stereotypes by highlighting the tight knit community of bluegrass and old-time music, and showing the world the talented LGBTQ+ voices that are here.”
Bluegrass musician Jake Blount reached out to Kundert in March with the idea of a virtual Porch Pride festival and it took off from there. The event takes place on June 27 and 28, with performers including Blount, Molly Tuttle, Amethyst Kiah and many more.
“Shortly after the lockdowns started and before it was clear how long the crisis was going to go on for, Jake had suggested that we could host a small digital ‘queer-antine’ festival as a way to keep people connected to BGP and to roots music throughout the shelter-in-place,” Kundert says. “At that point in time, it still seemed like we were going to have in-person Pride festivities in June, so I was concerned that we wouldn’t have the budget to support both activities. However, as the weeks progressed and the writing appeared on the wall, we realized that our in-person Pride festivities in San Francisco, Portland and Nashville were probably not going to happen. So Jake and I started to discuss what a Bluegrass Pride digital festival might look like.”
“Bluegrass Pride has become a deeply important symbol to LGBTQ bluegrass and old-time musicians across the nation,” adds Blount. “With that said, most of us never get the chance to attend Bluegrass Pride events; the organization is still growing, and though chapters are springing up nationwide, our flagship annual event in San Francisco is a long plane ride away for me and my fellow East Coasters. I saw an online event as an opportunity to involve a far greater number of people than we ordinarily reach with this event, and to provide some much-needed support for my fellow LGBTQ artists who have found themselves out of work during the pandemic.”
Blount, too, is keen to help destroy some myths about the bluegrass community. It is, he says, no less welcoming that most other scenes.
“I find that in bluegrass, as with any other community, some spaces and people are more welcoming than others,” he says. “I would be lying if I said my experiences as an LGBTQ person have been universally positive, but they have been overwhelmingly positive nonetheless. I came to this music during my time as a college student, and frequently found myself fleeing my northeastern liberal arts college to spend time in the mountains of West Virginia with fellow string band musicians. Although I have always spent the lion’s share of my time in the more accepting old-time scene than in bluegrass circles, both have been a refuge for me in moments when environments stereotyped as less homophobic have proven unwelcoming. The other queer people I’ve met through this music have been more supportive and kind than any I’ve known elsewhere, and I think my involvement with the music has strengthened my ties to the LGBTQ community overall.”
The more you learn, huh? Porch Pride looks set to be a wonderful virtual event, and a colorful addition to the Pride programming. Still, Kundert says that there are challenges with putting something like this on.
“I think it’s going to be a challenge to create that same sense of community in a digital environment that you find on site at weekend bluegrass festivals,” she says. “There’s something unique and kind of magical about wandering around fairgrounds at night, jamming with your friends and running into the musicians that you saw on stage earlier that day grabbing a hot dog from the late-night stand. I don’t know if it’s possible to give people that same kind of community experience in this virtual way, but we’d really like to get close. We want this to be more than just a fundraiser for these artists and for our own organization — we want it to be a place for the community to gather and heal from all the stress and hardship of the past few months.”
As for Blount, he says that he’ll be joining up with The Vox Hunters for his set.
“They’re fantastically skilled singers and interpreters of traditional New England music,” he says. “We’ll be performing selections from my new record, Spider Tales, as well as their new record, Fresh From The Board: Music From The Ocean State Songster, Vol. 1. We have very different styles and repertoire, and I look forward to discovering the roles that squeeze boxes and vocal harmonies can play in my songs, as well as what my banjo and fiddle playing can add to theirs. The rehearsals have been incredibly fun, and I can’t wait for the show!”
Porch Pride on Saturday, June 27 and Sunday, June 28. Go to bluegrasspride.net for all the details.