IBMA Announces Partnerships to Broaden Inclusivity

Photo courtesy of Bluegrass Pride

Building on talk among members of the International Bluegrass Music Association about the need for a stronger spirit of inclusivity, the IBMA announced this week that it’s partnering with nonprofits Bluegrass Pride and The Handsome Ladies.

Bluegrass Pride, an initiative of the California Bluegrass Association, champions LGBT musicians and fans and was named Best Overall Contingent in the 2017 San Francisco Pride Parade. The group will be marching in this year’s parade on Sunday. The Handsome Ladies supports and promotes female bluegrass musicians. Both groups will have a booth in the Exhibit Hall at this year’s World of Bluegrass, Sept. 25-29 in Raleigh, North Carolina.

“We want those who are part of our community to know they are supported, and we want those are not yet a part of our community to know that they are always welcome,” IBMA’s Convention Services Director Eddie Huffman said in a press release announcing the partnerships. “We are excited to partner with Bluegrass Pride and the Handsome Ladies to support their efforts to bring bluegrass music to new audiences, celebrating our music’s open and inclusive nature.”

“We want those who are part of our community to know they are supported, and we want those are not yet a part of our community to know that they are always welcome.”

The partnerships come after two years of successful Shout & Shine diversity showcases at the IBMA’s annual World of Bluegrass event in Raleigh, and soon after the announcement of a set at the event’s ticketed main stage this year showcasing the first female winners of IBMA’s instrumental awards in their categories: Alison Brown on banjo, Becky Buller on fiddle, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Missy Raines on bass, and Molly Tuttle on guitar. Hull and Buller won their awards in 2016, and Tuttle won last year. 

Right on, my brothers and sisters.

Why is there a need to inject any agenda other than the enjoyment of music into the IBMA? I'm not a member, but I have been deeply involved in bluegrass music for going on 30 years, and I've never seen anyone's orientation about anything, personal, political, or otherwise, be an issue in a jam session or a band situation. Music is (or maybe was?) one of the last oases where people who may disagree about everything else can come together and find common ground. The imposition of any agenda, and the subtle coercion which often accompanies it, is likely to have negative consequences, intended or otherwise. That's my two zloties.

Perhaps you haven't seen anyone's orientation be an issue in a jam session or band situation, KW, because people who are LGBT or female haven't felt welcome to be there. I know LGBT music lovers who steer clear of festivals because they fear they'll be harrassed or worse by strangers there. And women who have been frozen out of jams led by men. And LGBT people and women have absolutely been kicked out of bands or not hired for them because the band leader doesn't want to deal with their own issues with sharing a bus or hotel room. So inclusivity in music isn't an agenda, it's a bridge to that common ground you mentioned. And if you look at it from a business standpoint, a music association has as a core interest bringing more people under the tent to enjoy the music, so these partnerships make perfect sense to me.

Thank you for your reply, Stacy. I'm more inclined to think that the reason I haven't seen anyone's personal orientations be an issue in a jam session is because the many jams I've played in have been organized around playing music. I've jammed and played in bands with women (taught my wife how to play mandolin in the bargain, and now she's been in a popular band for more than a decade), and, given the sheer number of people I've played with, I'm sure I've jammed with people of many different persuasions, ideologies, nationalities and states of inebriation (wait, that last guy was me).

I think band leaders should be free to hire whomever they want to be in their bands; do you suggest otherwise?

Inclusivity as an idea is not necessarily an agenda. My jamming M.O. is very inclusive: I'll jam with anyone who wants to play some bluegrass and doesn't make an intolerable nuisance of themselves. Or wants to play Rocky Top three times in a row (two's my limit). Music itself is the bridge; I think replacing that with the sweeping social movement du jour is a mistake, and turns the focus away from the music itself.

What is the next step, a thorough and searching inventory of the personal lives and ideologies of the founding fathers of bluegrass music, and striking those who don't meet the standards of purity from the Bluegrass Hall of Honor? It could get mighty lonely in that hall.

I was saddened last year to read an interview with one of my favorite guitarists wherein he said one of his reasons for not wanting to perform anymore was that he might inadvertantly entertain Trump supporters (not making that up). I am not and cannot ever fathom being a Trump supporter, but this remark came from a man who was born and lives in the South and has played traditional music for a long time. Is it inconceivable to think he may have performed for people with beliefs contrary to his own? Our society, though, has become so politicized and polarized and touchy that now a veteran, legendary performer won't take to the stage in part because a supporter of someone with whom he disagrees may be in the audience and enjoy his music.

Bluegrassers: let's not go there. Let's play the music and let that be our common ground.

Unless you're wanting to bring a Fender bass to the jam...then we need to talk (apologies to Nick Forster).

Thanks, KW. So here's how I look at it: The vast majority of bluegrassers are, like you seem to be, friendly people who would notice, say, a shy teenager with a guitar in their hand sidling up to an open jam and make a point to say "Hey, come on in here!" On a larger scale, that's exactly what the IBMA is doing by partnering with The Handsome Ladies and Bluegrass Pride: "Hey, I see you, and you're welcome here. Let's make music." I don't think that's so much an "agenda" as just a very basic act of humanity, of connecting over a shared love of music, which is about the bluegrassiest thing I can think of.

I think I hear what you're saying, but, if as you say, the vast majority of bluegrassers do this anyway, why does the IBMA need to do anything about it? The only conflicts I've seen in jams (and I'm talking big festivals, jamming with strangers) are rare instances of headcutting, and, even then, they're often good natured. When the IBMA starts making formal statements of this nature, the probability is high of it ending up in a "wear the ribbon" situation:

If IBMA and we general bluegrass lovers can just keep it about the music, then it can stay about the music, and we'll all have more time for what bluegrass music really needs: some new banjo jokes.

I'm tending to agree with KW. If they do this, politics etc will get involved. Can we just have Something we can keep it out of?

I think it is very easy as a member of the majority to minimize the experience of the minority. The personal Is political when you are not a member of the dominant group. As a lesbian who also happens to be a bluegrass fan I have experienced hostility at shows when my appearance didn't conform to some heteronormative standard.  It has definitely made me reticent to go see more shows, especially with my wife. You may feel imposed upon by inclusion, but what about those wanting to be included? We feel the way we feel for a reason. We (gay people, in this case) would love for people to get over themselves when it comes to what we do and with us...we just want the same thing as everyone else: to enjoy what we love with whomever it is we love. I appreciate the thoughtful conversation.

I don't believe I said I feel "imposed upon by inclusion." I did say that I don't grill someone about their orientation r.e. anything if they want to jam. What I was also trying to say was that it would be nice to have one or two areas of life that were neutral zones in The Culture Wars. Music has power to unite, but music "scenes" often have a tendency to be tribal. I've experienced a lot less tribalism in bluegrass than I have in other scenes. Drafting resolutions and pontificating from "official" spokespersons from the bluegrass industry is unlikely to make anything better, and such official posturing might just make a lot of bluegrass fans who want to keep politics out of bluegrass feel excluded. But, as I also said, I have no involvement with IBMA, either. They certainly can make whatever rules they want to make. I hope, though, that this path doesn't lead to a re-examination of who is "worthy" to be in the Bluegrass Hall of Honor (a la the current shaming of Laura Ingalls Wilder).

Thank you so much for sharing your experience and your view, Lali. I believe that the first step of inclusivity is just listening to stories like yours, and stories from anyone whose experience is different from our own. And the next step is thinking hard about where we, the listener, fit into that story and whether we're proud of our role, or maybe can do better.