The banjo player had an announcement.
Looking out from the stage of the Pour House on Tuesday, opening night of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s “Bluegrass Ramble” nightclub shows, Justin Hiltner introduced his song “Somethin’ Warm” exactly the way he’d always wanted:
“This is a gay song, guys!”
The audience at “Shout and Shine: A Celebration of Diversity in Bluegrass,” roared in approval. And Hiltner, a 24-year-old Ohio native who plays with Roland White and Vickie Vaughn Band in Nashville, was thrilled.
“Typically I’m singing that song in a bar in downtown Nashville, where it tends to go over people’s heads,” he said afterward. “And I’m usually thinking, ‘OK, at least nobody’s getting pissed off.’ This was the first time I could really get into the story of the song, which I wrote about men in general because I’m gay. And it was the first time an audience really celebrated it with me, which was such a good feeling.
This was the first time I could really get into the story of the song, which I wrote about men in general because I’m gay. And it was the first time an audience really celebrated it with me, which was such a good feeling.
Justin Hiltner, who performed Tuesday night at Pour House in Raleigh
“It was the first time I’ve ever been able to ham that one up without worrying about somebody getting angry,” Hiltner concluded. “I’m glad we’re having conversations about diversity at IBMA, to have the space to include different identities. That had not happened here before this year.”
Between Tuesday night’s showcase and Wednesday morning’s business-conference panel “Bluegrass Belongs to Us All,” diversity is more in the IBMA spotlight this year than ever before. The showcase lineup featured musicians across a broad range of orientations, ages and nationalities – including a pair of young Indian immigrant players under 10 years old, who Hiltner jokingly described as “so talented it’s frustrating.”
There are nods to diversity elsewhere, too. Rounder Records co-founder Marian Leighton Levy gave the keynote speech on Tuesday, talking about inclusiveness and concluding, “If music doesn’t discriminate, then I ask you: Why should we?” And IBMA awards show producer Amy Reitnouer promises that Thursday night’s program will “make certain nods to the inclusiveness we want to extend within the genre.”
“Diversity is a point of emphasis for a lot of our members, who have been stepping up to say they want everyone to know the music is inclusive,” said IBMA executive director Paul J. Schiminger. “A lot of them stepped up to organize things like the showcase and panel. This year, clearly people wanted to make sure that community is one we’re aware of and embrace.”
Diversity is a point of emphasis for a lot of our members, who have been stepping up to say they want everyone to know the music is inclusive. ... This year, clearly people wanted to make sure that community is one we’re aware of and embrace.
Paul J. Schiminger, IBMA executive director
Of course, the timing of this is no accident. Much of the inspiration for this round of IBMA outreach is House Bill 2, North Carolina’s so-called “Bathroom Bill.”
Passed in March, HB2 overturned the city of Charlotte’s local non-discrimination ordinance and forbade other North Carolina cities from enacting similar laws. It also triggered a firestorm of controversy, and cancellations of events from a Bruce Springsteen concert to NCAA sporting events.
In the wake of HB2, the IBMA released a statement in April that spoke of “a wide diversity of views” within its membership and pledged to “continue monitoring the situation.” Almost six months later, the monitoring continues.
Raleigh is under contract with IBMA as the World of Bluegrass host city for another two years, through 2018. Three years ago, IBMA almost immediately extended its original three-year deal with Raleigh after 2013’s hugely successful first year. But another renewal has been slower in coming.
Looking down the road, what will happen if HB2 remains in effect?
“We’re still assessing what we will do beyond 2018,” Schiminger said. “There is nothing to report on that at this time.”
In the meantime, musicians like Hiltner are determined to speak out and stay visible.
“I think HB2 is why the diversity showcase and panel happened,” said Hiltner. “It woke everyone up and motivated people like me who saw the IBMA’s statement and said, ‘We want to do more and say more than this.’ I live in Tennessee now and the legislature there floated a bathroom bill, too. This is the South, where bluegrass was born and bred. We can’t boycott our home turf. We need to change it from the inside out.”