No matter how open-minded and “woke” you may be, conjure a mental picture of a bluegrass musician and it likely is a white man.
But “Shout & Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass” aims to expand that picture to the entire palette of races, physical abilities, sexual orientations, gender identities and national origins present – but often underrepresented – in bluegrass.
The concert is Sept. 26 at Raleigh’s Pour House as part of the Bluegrass Ramble, a component of the International Bluegrass Music Association events in Raleigh this week.
The performers include Tyler Williams, who was born with cerebral palsy and is blind; openly gay songwriter Sam Gleaves; Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer, a duo known as Cathy & Marcy; incoming IBMA Hall-of-Famer Alice Gerrard; the Otsuka and Watanabe Brothers, members of Japanese band Bluegrass 45; African-American string band The Ebony Hillbillies; and a “super jam” led by Front Country, who are nominated for this year’s IBMA’s Emerging Artist of the Year award.
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The showcase is hosted by local traditional music organization PineCone and music website The Bluegrass Situation. Advocacy organizations will be at the show, including Equality NC, Triangle Friends of African American Arts and NC Asian Americans Together.
“We’re specifically going to direct audience members to get involved by talking to those organizations that are on site and also stepping up to be allies,” said Justin Hiltner, social media director at The Bluegrass Situation and one of Shout & Shine’s producers.
“It’s really important for us to demonstrate that because IBMA, and because this bluegrass community is a community of its members, it’s a community of people who show up,” Hiltner said. “We each have a responsibility to improve this community for everybody else.”
Shout & Shine started at last year’s World of Bluegrass, partly as a response to House Bill 2, North Carolina’s since-repealed “bathroom bill” that required people to use public bathrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate.
Hiltner, an openly gay banjo player based in Nashville, and Bluegrass Situation executive editor Amy Reitnouer (an Elon University alumnus) felt that IBMA hadn’t gone far enough – or perhaps couldn’t go far enough as a professional organization that has to accommodate a wide political spectrum – to speak up for the LGBT community.
“We decided we needed to step up and fill this gap where IBMA couldn’t,” Hiltner said,
The inaugural event was well attended and fit perfectly alongside a diversity-themed World of Bluegrass keynote address from Rounder Records co-founder Marian Leighton Levy, as well as a business conference panel on inclusion in bluegrass. And it appeared to have made somewhat of a difference.
Hiltner recalled a tweet from a stranger who confided he had quit playing mandolin in his teens because he thought being gay would never be accepted in the bluegrass world, but was encouraged by the new focus on diversity and inclusion.
A folk musician friend who is gay told Hiltner that she never had come to World of Bluegrass before because “she didn’t feel like it was a place she could go and be herself openly and without worrying,” he said. She attended last year for the first time because of the diversity showcase.
All of that was heartening, Hiltner said, but it doesn’t mean the work is done.
“It’s a step in the process,” he said of last year’s efforts.
“Our goal last year was purely representation, and that’s the very first step in the process toward a more inclusive community,” he said. “So continuing it this year is not only going to serve to remind people that this is something that needs to be ongoing, but it’s also going to show people … that we can never take these issues for granted, and we can never get complacent.”
Before Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs and other bluegrass forefathers, there were immigrants, slaves and women who created songs and passed them down to family members, friends and neighbors. Some of those songs, and the style of playing the traditional bluegrass instruments, found their way into bluegrass as it took shape after World War II. The banjo, that most iconic of the bluegrass instruments, traces its roots to Africa.
The New York-based Ebony Hillbillies, when they’re on stage, put a spotlight on African-American string-band music, both on its own merits and to honor its influence on bluegrass and other forms of American roots music. Through their original songs, covers of classics like “Liza Jane” and “Cluck Ol’ Hen,” reimaginings of pop songs and educational outreach, they show how black string band traditions influence all genres of today’s music.
Often, it’s not just an education for white listeners, but also black audience members.
“For a long time, (black) people weren’t familiar with the banjo,” said Henrique Prince, singer and fiddle player in the Ebony Hillbillies.
Ali Rahman, the band’s percussionist, describes people’s reactions when they hear the band play.
“People come up to you, and they say, ‘Why are you guys playing that kind of music? You black people, why are you playing banjos and fiddles?’” Rahman said.
Prince finished the thought: “People don’t know. We don’t have no monuments to that.”
Hiltner hopes the showcase is more than an introduction of diversity but also a reminder that it’s been in bluegrass all along.
“When marginalized identities, whether gay or people of color or women or what-have-you come into the music, it feels like infiltration, it feels like people coming from the outside into the music,” he said.
“My goal is that we start stripping down that narrative, and those structures that have taken bluegrass and the rootsy, old-timey wing of roots music to this place of being considered what it is today, and understand that the changes that we can make aren’t moving away from the origins of the music – it’s moving back toward the origins of the music.”
What: “Shout & Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass.” Part of IBMA’s Bluegrass Ramble.
When: Sept. 26, 10 p.m. to 1 a.m.
Where: The Pour House, 224 S Blount St., Raleigh
Cost: $25 to $30 for single-day Bluegrass Ramble pass, $60 to $75 for three-day pass.
Note: The show will be streamed live on The Bluegrass Situation’s Facebook page, facebook.com/TheBluegrassSituation.