Out of 270 floats, companies, and queer associations, a roots music organization’s marching contingent was crowned “Best of the Best” at San Francisco’s world-famous Pride parade in 2017. And they did it on their very first try — the only organization to ever achieve such a feat. Who was that overalls-and-rainbow-glitter-clad crew of more than a hundred bluegrass fans, pickers, and professionals? Bluegrass Pride.
The Bluegrass Situation has been proud to support Bluegrass Pride since 2017, with our logo emblazoned on the inaugural float that carried three bluegrass and old-time bands down Market Street to the cheers of thousands of brand new “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” fans. In 2020, the nonprofit organization had planned its biggest Pride celebrations yet (in San Francisco; Portland, Oregon; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Nashville, Tennessee) while still welcoming the rural and non-metropolitan LGBTQ+ folks who love and make these musics, too.
Enter our most familiar villain, COVID-19. In response, Bluegrass Pride has shifted to a new concept, Porch Pride: A Bluegrass Pride Queer-antine Festival. Featuring more than ten hours of music by queer and allied artists such as Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, Molly Tuttle, Sam Gleaves, Jake Blount, Rachel Baiman, and more, the livestream event will air June 27 and 28 on Bluegrass Pride’s website, YouTube channel, and Facebook and Instagram pages. Porch Pride will raise money for Bluegrass Pride and all of the musicians on the bill. Fans and followers are encouraged to donate now.
To celebrate Porch Pride with our longtime friends at Bluegrass Pride, we connected with Executive Director Kara Kundert and powerhouse singer/songwriter and the digital festival’s “headliner” Amythyst Kiah.
BGS: For those unfamiliar with Bluegrass Pride, how would you describe it?
Kara Kundert: Oh, what a big question. In a purely statutory sense, I would say that Bluegrass Pride is a nonprofit organization devoted to the advancement of LGBTQ+ people within the bluegrass, old-time, and broader roots music traditions. To get a little bit more descriptive, we work every day to make bluegrass a more welcoming place for people of all backgrounds. Our mission is to show the world that bluegrass is for everyone, so we try to create programs that serve all kinds of people who love and participate in American traditional music. We put on local beginner-friendly jams and create introductory video content to help people get involved with the community even as they’re just starting out, and we host concerts and showcases to create paid opportunities for professional musicians.
Amythyst Kiah: …Simply, my idea of what something like Bluegrass Pride represents: It is about accepting all forms of identity and expression in a style of music that is known for having a more traditional culture, and it’s also an outlet for queer people who don’t fit the stereotype of gay club culture. As iconic and important gay club culture is historically, it isn’t everyone’s experience.
Kundert: Via the incredibly talented Jake Blount! Jake is on the Bluegrass Pride board of directors and he came to me back in March (just as everything was starting to shut down and we were holing up for quarantine) to suggest that Bluegrass Pride host a digital festival to support artists in the face of the first round of gig cancellations. He had participated in the first iteration of the Stay At Home Festival and had seen how much energy and support there were for these artists, and thought that it was a natural fit for Bluegrass Pride and our mission.
At that point in time, it was still really unclear how long and how bad the COVID pandemic was going to be — we still believed that SF Pride was going to march down Market Street in June — so I was a little nervous to take on the project. I was worried that we wouldn’t have the resources to do everything and do it well. We started discussing smaller-scale projects, like weekly concert series or short little weekend showcases, things that we would have the budget to do in addition to our regular programming.
But within a couple of weeks, it became pretty clear that our whole season was going to change dramatically, and that was when the plan shifted from being “maybe we’ll host a couple of digital concerts to keep momentum before Pride” to creating Porch Pride and really making it the center of our entire year.
People don’t tend to think of bluegrass or roots music when it comes to Pride celebrations, and obviously y’all think that needs to change! Why? What does bluegrass and string band music bring to the greater LGBTQ+ community?
Kiah: I see this event and organization as a way to formally recognize that LGBTQ+ have always been present in the communities where bluegrass and other roots-based music originated from. Historically, media has projected many ideas of what being queer looks and sounds like, and it’s high time to recognize and celebrate other ways of being and doing when it comes to music.
Kundert: I think that there’s a problem whenever people aren’t being represented. So it was a problem for bluegrass that LGBTQ+ stories and music weren’t being heard onstage. It was a problem when queer folks were being excluded from jams and from gigs just because of their identity. And it’s a problem for the LGBTQ+ community that this portion of our family isn’t being included in the conversation about what “gayness” is. We as a culture have this extremely metropolitan, white, male-centric idea of what the LGBTQ+ community is, which is what you really see on display on these corporate floats at the major cities’ Pride parades, and it leaves out so many people. There are as many ways to be queer as there are colors under the sun, and that’s something that we as a [bluegrass] community need to do more to embrace in order to support and uplift every single person in the LGBTQ+ community.
Kiah: Both movements involve recognizing and uplifting marginalized voices, due to the continued generational trauma that both have had to endure. Being Black, a woman, typically gender-nonconformant, and queer, I have experienced some form of questionable actions, treated as if I was invisible, and [received] looks of contempt by other people. I am fortunate that I haven’t experienced much worse, but that being said, I was terrified of my own shadow for years before I really started to embrace myself and be myself. So Bluegrass Pride is about recognizing that we all have value, just as Songs of Our Natives is about.
Kara, planning a Pride event can be a major undertaking. What is the reward for you, on a personal level, after putting in so many hours to prepare?
Kundert: Creating and running these events is always such an emotional rollercoaster. There’s so much anxiety and energy in the planning: Are people going to show up? Is it going to go well? Are people going to connect with it, or are they just not going to care at all? But then in the moment, you get to listen to this wonderful music by talented people, and be with a crowd of people that want to support Bluegrass Pride, and it’s euphoric. So far, I haven’t been let down by that moment of standing in a crowd and experiencing that kind of threefold-payoff of enjoying the music as an audience member, enjoying the crowd and energy as someone standing on stage, and enjoying the sheer relief of not totally fucking up as a producer.
But beyond that very selfish gratification, I also know how much these events mean to people. I know there are people who play bluegrass right now — people who are showing up at jams and forming bands and going to festivals — because Bluegrass Pride made them feel welcome and safe to be there. There are people who found Bluegrass Pride and realized that maybe they could come out after all. I know that these events — our parade float in San Francisco, our LGBTQ+ Musician Showcase in Raleigh, our beginner-friendly jams — they mean something to people. So when I get to stand in the crowd and see people’s smiles and feel people’s energy, both on- and off-stage, it makes me feel like what we’re doing matters to people. That all of the work and the hours and the stress: they add up to something bigger than just myself or my own feelings of relief and exhaustion. And that’s what keeps me going after four years of being a part of Bluegrass Pride.
Kundert: I know this is a cliche to say, but I’m looking forward to all of it — I put together the lineup after all! We have so many talented artists, I’m just looking forward to hearing all of their great music and seeing how people come together to celebrate Pride with us this year.
Kiah: I am looking forward to (hopefully) finding a quiet place outside to share some stories and music! If only it could be done in person, but I’ll take what I can get! Being safe [is a] top priority.
How can we all celebrate Pride “better” this year?
Kiah: I think one thing to keep in mind is that not everyone can safely be out of the closet, and that we should always keep those folks in our thoughts and to remember that [there is] more than one way to live out our truths in a way that we see most fit. Whenever we are waving our rainbow flags or wearing our rainbow suspenders, we’re also wearing them for the ones that can’t be with us.
Kundert: I think the key to best celebrating Pride — and to best doing most things in life — is to take a page from the author John Green and put energy into imagining people more complexly. If we imagine Pride more complexly, we see beyond the metronormative, white, cis, corporate stereotypes of Pride and begin to see new possibilities — for a Pride without all the weird classist, toxic binarism and gate-keeping. If we imagine bluegrass more complexly, we can break out of these same tired tropes that we’ve been falling into years and start telling new stories — using this art form as a way to create authentic and fresh connections with people.
We must do everything we can to see and honor people in all of their nuance. By forming connections with people, we are able to glimpse outside of our own lives. To do so enables us to generate empathy for each other, to see each other as family rather than strangers, or worse, as adversaries. To expand our circles and grow our vision of humanity will help us to better fight for justice for all, rather than justice for a few.
Photo credit: Anna Hedges
Artwork: Courtesy of Bluegrass Pride