Music by VICE

How History Books Erased the Marginalized Voices That Built Bluegrass

Bluegrass' history is strewn with women and Black and queer artists who weren't credited for their contributions to the genre.

by Abby Lee Hood
May 19 2020, 11:00am

Gangstagrass. Photo by Janet Mami Takayama. 

On December 8, 1945, Bill Monroe and his Bluegrass Boys stepped onto the Grand Ole Opry stage alongside Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs for the very first time. Each man would become a historic icon on their instruments: the mandolin, guitar, and banjo respectively. Many consider that Opry show, just months after the end of World War II, the day the genre of bluegrass was born. Now, seventy-five years later, fans and bluegrass organizations are gearing up to celebrate its diamond anniversary.

Monroe was a pioneer in many ways, pulling musical influences and instruments together in new ways. But there are problems with centering him as the sole father of bluegrass; while he was a microcosm of the American melting pot—perhaps even a symptom of it—in truth, bluegrass's history is much longer, strewn with an array of Black, queer, and marginalized artists time left behind and failed to credit.

When hearing the word “bluegrass,” most people envision a certain kind of American life—probably a banjo or fiddle player somewhere in the South, sitting on a porch with a beer or sweet tea, surrounded by at least one piece of large farm equipment. But it wasn’t always like that. The first bluegrass pickers were open about the Black musicians who influenced them; Rhiannon Giddens, a combination historian-and-musician who has given keynotes and addresses about bluegrass history for both the International Bluegrass Music Association and the Americana Music Association, is on a mission to more accurately depict musical history. She told VICE that writing these early influencers out of the story became commonplace, but wasn't always the case in the genre's early days.

“Bluegrass came out of a thriving string band tradition that already existed, and was co-created by Black culture,” Giddens said. “That first generation of bluegrass musicians were open about Black people they learned from.”

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Rhiannon Giddens. Photo courtesy of Rhiannon Giddens

As bluegrass got its legs in the recording industry, things began to change. Giddens, who is a Grammy-winning founding member of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, said industry executives left Black artists out of bluegrass recordings, relegating them to “race music” days. Record labels would go into communities and recruit artists to play “hillbilly music” and other genres to sell records, and Black artists would be recruited to play jazz or blues. This shaped the narrative around Black musicians, and as the recording industry grew, it only got worse. Giddens said many wealthy white business owners benefited directly from storytelling about a predominantly white culture, so over time, Black musicianship was intentionally wiped from the history of bluegrass.

“It was carefully crafted in the interest of white supremacy,” Giddens said. “Fiddling contests started as a way to celebrate the native music of America, but Black people weren’t allowed to enter.”

In the last 75 years, the whitewashing and erasure of marginalized artists within the bluegrass community has continued. Justin Hiltner, the IBMA-nominated queer banjo player, said there are also countless stories of queer bluegrass musicians being closeted or omitted from the history books. Hiltner said it would be disrespectful to out artists who have passed away because those aren’t his stories to tell, but said homophobia still exists in the bluegrass community today. Hiltner said it isn’t so easy to point to specific examples of prejudice so much as the negative space left by a lack of opportunity and othering.

“It’s an undercurrent of exclusion,” Hiltner, who writes for The Bluegrass Situation, told VICE in an interview. “Because of my queerness, I’ve spent my adult life feeling like I don’t belong [in bluegrass]. That’s homophobia, but it doesn’t have a direct perpetrator.”

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Justin Hiltner. Photo courtesy of Justin Hiltner

Hiltner, who survived conversion therapy after coming out at 17 to his religious family, said there are bluegrass artists who probably wouldn’t play on stage with him or hire him because of his sexuality. He highlighted the exclusion of the “mothers of bluegrass,” female artists who led the genre or were ahead of their time, holding de-segregated concerts in the 60s. Hiltner said that while exclusion of women and LGBTQ musicians has been widespread, excluded artists have always found a way to continue sharing their craft.

“Other marginalized people wouldn’t have a place if women hadn’t carved a path,” Hiltner said. “You can try and exclude [LGBTQ people], but [women are] all open-armed to folks like me. They know what it feels like to be on the outside.”

When asked how to course-correct, Hiltner pointed to programs like Kids on Bluegrass, run by the International Bluegrass Music Association. Hiltner said it’s created an entire generation of new artists, including those like Molly Tuttle who went through the educational program and came out an internationally recognized folk artist. As the program continues, more diverse groups of artists and appreciative ticket buyers will come from the schools where they first learned to love the music.

That course-correcting, Hiltner said, is more important than ever. In a changing world, bluegrass can’t sustain a continued legacy of white supremacy and stereotypes. He said bluegrass is more relevant than ever to new listeners, if only they had the opportunity to hear it.

“This is an existential moment,” Hiltner said. “We can fight over musical archetypes but the real crisis is this niche genre isn’t going to survive unless we can demonstrate that there’s something to relate to.”

As Hiltner said, demographics are shifting. Marginalized communities will continue to mix bluegrass into their melting pots, much like in the 1920s and 1930s. But we don’t need another 75 years to find out how unexpected mixtures can revitalize the industry—there’s a perfect example touring internationally.

Cue Gangstagrass, a band that couldn’t be more aptly named if it tried. The Emmy-nominated group blends hip-hop and bluegrass through their sounds like “Long Hard Times to Come,” which is the theme song for the hit TV show Justified.

Gangstagrass may blend bars and banjos, but their music also feels a little rock n’ roll, a little rebellious. Their shows may be the only place where you can find a banjo picker wearing an American flag shirt, a rapper wearing a Black Power hoodie, and a drunk white lady dancing in the front row. While there are a few traditionalist listeners who might gently be described as “not a fan,” Gangstagrass has a dedicated following and participates in cultural exchanges through the U.S. State Department.

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Gangstagrass. Photo by Melodie Yvonne courtesy of Gangstagrass

The lyrics to “Long Hard Times to Come” are far more modern from what most people expect from bluegrass's themes, and speak to feeling alone, facing struggles without a family or support system. It’s a stark contrast to bluegrass tunes about cabins, coal mines, or farming. Those concepts are out of date for most listeners in the genre today, and Gangstagrass is the antithesis of that tradition, offering authentic rap and folk music combined.

Diversity and inclusion weren’t the first priority when the group started, but R-Son the Voice of Reason, a rapper in the band, said there is work to be done, especially when he can count the people of color in the audience on one hand. He said the way forward is acknowledging hip-hop is a type of folk music, and that all folk music comes from shared struggle.

“[Hip-hop was] dudes standing on the street corner, saying what they had to say,” R-Son told VICE in an interview. “Whether it was somebody in the project or somebody out in the woods on their porch with a banjo, it’s the same thing conceptually.”

Bill Monroe once said bluegrass has “brought more people together and made more friends than any music in the world.” It’s ironic that bands like Gangstagrass are carrying on that bluegrass tradition Monroe talked about many years ago.

That may have felt true on December 8, 1945, and it still rings true for bluegrass lovers today, though the full story of who has been brought together and collaborated in this music hasn’t been fully told in many years, if ever at all. As Giddens said, erasure is bluegrass's past, and Hiltner said it’s still a component of bluegrass's present. Gangstagrass, though, is an indication it doesn’t have to be part of bluegrass's future.

There’s still time to unearth forgotten figures, like so many diamonds in the rough. Just as diamonds are forged under pressure, the future of bluegrass may be driven by common struggles people face everywhere, pressure from systemic failures and injustice. Whether an artist finds themselves evicted from their apartment after the coronavirus decimates their income, or another innocent Black person is gunned down in the streets, bluegrass can do what it always has—provide a platform to tell stories and connect people in a way that truly shines.

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bill monroe