If you’ve spent more than fifteen minutes in downtown Raleigh during past IBMA convocations, you’ve noticed some trends about audience demographics. There’s a moderately strong presence of young people, but the audience largely leans toward an even mix of white, middle-age (or older) men and women; and like country music, bluegrass has a not-always-accurate reputation for politically conservative leanings. This year, though, organizers have made a couple of strong attempts at bridging the gaps between what the institution looks like and the people who actually make its musicsomething that can only help IBMA as it tries to expand its reach to new audiences.
The biggest diversity effort this year was Tuesday night’s Shout and Shine showcase, presented by Raleigh’s Pinecone in partnership with The Bluegrass Situation, a music and lifestyle site. The showcase presented a thoroughly respectable slate of artists from vastly different cultural, musical, and personal backgrounds. But with a Tuesday night slot, it didn’t have as big of a spotlight as it deserved.
Among the Shout and Shine performers are The Ebony Hillbillies, a long-running all-black string band. It’s utterly refreshing to see artists of color represented who aren’t current or former members of The Carolina Chocolate Drops as part of a diversity showcase. There’s also Sam Gleaves, a young, gay banjo picker and songwriter who aims to promote LGBTQ visibility in bluegrass, and members of Bluegrass 45, a Japanese group that helped create a space for bluegrass in Japan. Today’s passionate bluegrass fan base in Japan exists in large part due to the band’s efforts in the sixties and seventies.
Shout and Shine also featured longtime Durhamite Alice Gerrard, who turned eighty-three this year and is a vibrant, engaging musical presence. When it comes to bluegrass and old-time music, Gerrard has pretty much seen and played it all, and her continued involvement in the music remains a gift.
Speaking of shining, the California Bluegrass Association has spearheaded yet another outreach effort. In June, the West Coast wing of bluegrass boosters entered a float in the San Francisco Pride Parade for the first time, bearing the banner of “Bluegrass Pride.” The organization brings its Bluegrass Pride banner to IBMA with a Friday “brunch” that runs from 2–4 p.m, with the intention of helping connect bluegrass fans countrywide who may be interested in boosting LGBTQ visibility in their communities. The event is smallit’s hosted in a hotel room, number 324 at the downtown Marriott hotelbut still open to the public. (They’ll have coffee, mimosas, cake, and other treats on hand, too.)
Between them, Shout and Shine and Bluegrass Pride don’t afford a ton of room for voices that are marginalized in the institution and in the world at large. But it’s a confident step in a necessary directionmomentum that, with any luck, will continue to build.