“The Arrow of Time Is a Lie,” by Gina Phillips. Courtesy of JONATHAN FERRARA GALLERY, New Orleans, Louisiana
Just As I Am
By Jewly Hight
Awaiting my turn to promenade down Market Street in this past June’s San Francisco Pride parade was a festive feat of endurance. Side streets served as rambunctious staging areas where parade contingents idled for hours on end, the revelers in their ranks whirling, bouncing, and hip-swiveling to the rhythmically propulsive dance music blaring from virtually every float’s PA system. One by one, they merged into the creeping parade traffic. Queens in fluffy gowns, fuchsia wigs, and foot-high crowns glided by on a float advertising a musical revue. Shirtless Latinx dancers in headdresses and heels hoisted flags and strutted to syncopated beats.
The groups that assembled along both sides of Main Street were originally scheduled to join the parade around noon. Due to a delay, they partied in place for hours, forming a motley, temporary neighborhood of twenty-somethings promoting England as a gay-friendly vacation destination; Clif Bar employees dispensing their product by the wagonload; leathery, nude men lacking any identifying signage; and enough plush animal–costumed fetishists to fill a flatbed truck hired by the Bay Area Furries.
The obvious outlier was a float that looked like it could’ve been plucked from a county fair. It was framed by a white picket fence with a small stage in back for live music. But with no musicians aboard, the speakers piped out bluegrass recordings; the soundtrack may have lacked the insistent, body-rocking bass of everything else within hearing, but its tinny, mid-range timbre had plenty of headstrong, acoustic drive, thanks to beelining guitar and mandolin runs, hurtling banjo rolls, and fleet fiddling. This was dance music of a different sort, and I intended to save my feet—clad in unforgiving clogging shoes whose nailed-on buck taps click-clacked with every step—for the bands who’d eventually play us through the parade route.
Several people milling about, me included, sported gray t-shirts identifying them as representatives of Bluegrass Pride, the California Bluegrass Association’s first venture into organized neighborliness toward the LGBTQ community. The sizable crowd included an elderly woman with PFLAG and HRC stickers on her ball cap, a twenty-something guy in tiny running shorts and a cowboy hat toting a mandolin, a banjo player whose lime green jacket and red tie suggested a florid spin on a vintage Earl Scruggs getup, a couple of trans teenagers who’d met at a booth promoting Bluegrass Pride at the CBA’s festival the weekend before, and a guy in bibbed overalls with glitter smeared all over his bare chest. From an Instagram post, I’d later learn that he was there with his polyamorous family.
Bounding from one circle of attendees to another, dispensing heartfelt hugs and introducing himself and his Danish boyfriend to newcomers with the comportment of a Southern gentleman, was my friend Brandon Godman, a bearded, bearish hipster type whose jolly, grandfatherly laugh belied his twenty-nine years. He was the closest thing to a master of ceremonies, a thoroughly modern export of rural Kentucky who’d become a galvanizing presence in the Bay Area bluegrass scene.
There was a time when Brandon looked to his musical reputation to shield him from scrutiny of his sexuality. The taunts about his sissified tendency to hang out with the girls on the playground ended once his schoolmates learned of his obsession with the fiddle. “Maybe the kid next to me was flaming as hell and gay and he was being ostracized, but I was Fiddle Kid,” he reflected on the phone a week or so after the Pride parade. “Especially in such a conservative area, it was a real savior.”
Even in Falmouth, Kentucky, a hamlet in the state’s Northeastern Bluegrass region, his single-minded devotion to mastering his old-fashioned instrument stood out. Sure, Brandon cleaned up in talent shows, but at school dances he recognized none of the hits that drew his peers to the dance floor, and he secretly loathed the contemporary pop-rock gloss on the praise and worship choruses they sang at his church.
Raised on a tobacco farm that had been worked by his kin since 1856, he came from a family that passed down agrarian wisdom rather than musical instincts. His dad was so determined to keep the farming operation afloat that he turned to trucking for supplemental income. So Brandon improvised his own musical lineage, seeking out nearby knowledgeable old-timers as mentors. As a ten-year-old, he sat next to seventy-eight-year-old Blanche Coldiron as she rocked in her recliner and would do his best to mimic her bow strokes. By his early teens, he’d become buddies with fiddle-collecting octogenarian Harold Zimmerman. They’d have hours-long conversations almost daily, Brandon listening to Zimmerman run through tunes over the phone in his mother’s basement beauty shop, then playing them back. The friendship later inspired Brandon’s first tattoo: a fiddle bow on his forearm.
He sees nothing odd about the fact that he exhibited preservationist zeal at a tender age: “I mean, I’m an old soul, and I’ll always love carrying on the tradition of stuff. I love steam engines. I like barns. I like seeing stuff done by hand.” His grandparents outfitted him with the sort of flashy, Western-style stage attire that was popular with performers half a century before his time. On the sepia-toned cover of a CD he recorded as an adolescent prodigy, he can be seen posing with a fiddle, a crew cut, and a grin. There are large stars embroidered across the yoke of his snap shirt. He was perfectly happy to follow a time-tested musical path.
During his last year of high school, he joined the band of one of the few first-generation bluegrass musicians still touring at the time, Melvin Goins, who soon concluded teenaged Brandon was a little too green to cut it. “I didn’t know shit,” Brandon concurred. But he was studious about improving, and he juggled classes at Morehead State with a series of part-time sideman gigs—the Wildwood Valley Boys, Karl Shiflett & Big Country Show, and others—bouncing from one traditional band to another before eventually dropping out of college and moving to Nashville.
By age twenty, he was working consistently on the bluegrass-gospel circuit. One gig ended abruptly when he loaned his laptop to a couple of bandmates at a recording session. They got nosy and found photos from a hush-hush trip to Gatlinburg with his clandestine boyfriend. “I don’t know how you and God are,” the bandleader thundered at Brandon, who stared at the floor, “but you need to get it right. If you keep on this path, you’ll be in hell for sure.”
After that experience, Brandon was scared to return phone calls about gigs, torn between denying rumors of his queerness in hopes of returning to the fold of the culturally conservative traditionalists and taking tentative steps toward coming out. Empathetic pickers became his lifeline—the roommate who dragged him along on the road so that he wouldn’t be alone at home; Deanie Richardson, a top-tier Nashville fiddler, who got him an audition with the superb Kentucky-based singer Dale Ann Bradley. One night Brandon even received a drunken phone call from a member of the band that’d banished him. He chuckles at the memory of the guy’s awkward soul baring: “He said, ‘I just got done watching Brokeback Mountain. I know how you feel. Like, I understand the bullshit you’ve gotta go through. That just sucks. I’m sorry.’”
Brandon had begun the process of forging a new identity out of old affinities and newly recognized ambitions when I met him at a Mardi Gras party in Nashville; he stood out in the crowd, supplying impromptu fiddle tunes and eight different flavors of moonshine bought off an outlaw distiller back home. After hearing his story, I felt protective of him. I watched him try to keep one foot in the gigging game, taking select bluegrass dates and filling in with mainstream country acts, even as he fashioned himself into a small-time entrepreneur, buying, repairing, and reselling vintage instruments. I’m convinced that the thing that did him the most good in those days was creating an X-rated drag country revue, the Marlene Twitty-Fargo show, with a few other pickers and me a few years back. For him, it was especially cathartic. Before our first show, we sat cross-legged on the living room floor of our frontwoman’s townhouse, listening to the Judds’ “Grandpa” on YouTube and rewriting the lyrics as an expression of queer nostalgia, giddy at the affectionate irreverence of what we were doing.
Bay Area pickers were pretty surprised when Brandon surfaced in their scene. Top young homegrown talent like guitarist Molly Tuttle, fiddler John Mailander, and the string band Front Country had all migrated in the opposite direction, seeking plum gigs, a more central location, and a lower cost of living in Nashville. But Brandon signed on to represent a bow company in the western U.S., and he considered that an excuse to try San Francisco, a city with a long history of hippified string brand hybrids, like the Jerry Garcia, David Grisman, and Peter Rowan collaboration Old & In the Way, and Laurie Lewis, a broad-minded veteran of merging bluegrass, folk, and singer-songwriter pop.
Lewis first saw Brandon play when he sat in with a local band at a festival last summer. “I have always really loved musicians who were raised in the tradition,” she told me. “That’s the stuff that I’ve always sought out. So when Brandon came along and I found out he’d moved to San Francisco, I just charged backstage and introduced myself and we palled around for the rest of the day.”
Ryan Breen, lead singer of a Bay Area bluegrass group called Windy Hill, met Brandon after one of the band’s shows. But Breen had little reason to expect that the unassuming fiddler wasn’t your run-of-the-mill weekend warrior musician until he went home and searched YouTube for videos. Breen marveled, “You don’t expect somebody to walk into your show and say, ‘Hey, I’m a fiddle player’ and have this pedigree that Brandon has, which is very unique in the Bay Area. He’s a higher caliber than any of the musicians that we really see out here.”
Brandon didn’t initially know what to make of Windy Hill either. Here was a band comprising millennial West Coast dwellers that played an animated, Jimmy Martin– influenced style of traditional bluegrass. Where Brandon came from, musical traditionalists tended to also be traditionalists about social and cultural values, and he’d felt he had to take the one with the other. “When studying traditional music, you have to kind of live, eat, breathe, sleep it to be good enough to recreate it in a competitive way,” he explained in an email. “Unfortunately, as a gay person there’s not much to personally grab on to traditionally, without kind of closeting yourself.” But he quickly learned that the founders of Windy Hill had taken a roundabout route to a high-and-lonesome sound, from an early obsession with jammy string bands to the discovery of bluegrass patriarchs like Jimmy Martin and Bill Monroe.
Another surprise for Brandon was that he’d stepped right into a generation gap in California’s bluegrass scene. Retirees from the central valley, many of them descended from Ozark migrants, outnumbered everyone else in the CBA, the central governing organization. Regional leader Ted Kuster— old enough to have a kid in college yet frequently among the youngest in the room at CBA gatherings—concluded that the music community was in dire need of diversity. As a first step toward addressing the problem, he came up with the idea of putting a bunch of pickers in the Pride parade. “As far as I know,” he said, “the whole group that was involved in getting the brainstorm off the ground was all straight people. . . . And then Brandon showed up and we had finally connected with a guy that really had skin in the game.”
When the subject came up for a vote at a CBA meeting, the dialogue was fairly messy. Some old-timers insisted they had no problems with gay people but wanted to keep their distance from the debauchery of Pride weekend. Gray-headed hippie types and the Gen X-and-under crowd advocated for greater inclusivity. But no speech matched the pathos of Brandon’s personal account. The board voted ten to one in favor of putting on Bluegrass Pride, which was no small thing, said Kuster: “Here’s a group of people who have dedicated their lives to what they think of as tradition being persuaded right there that, ‘If we’re going to have this community going into the future, we’re going to have to make some fundamental changes that might seem to strike at the foundation of some of what we think of as tradition.’”
With Brandon on board, the vision expanded well beyond throwing together a parade float. The weekend’s events began with a Thursday night showcase at a bluegrass-friendly bar in the Mission District.
Positioned at the lip of the stage was a black cowboy boot. A handwritten sign taped to its side designated it the “tip boot”; any cash it captured would go toward the cost of the Bluegrass Pride float. Perched on a barstool, I overheard a guy in a pork pie hat who’d been handed a rainbow flag bearing a banjo silhouette at the door remark quizzically, “I guess they’re combining everything about San Francisco.”
I wasn’t the only one there who’d traveled from Nashville. Songwriter and bassist Jon Weisberger, onetime president of the International Bluegrass Music Association, did a good-natured job of conferring a sense of institutional authority upon the occasion. Setting up a song about escaping the pull of the familiar, he contrasted bluegrass songwriting’s stock nostalgia with the Bay Area’s appeal for people looking to start new lives. “Sometimes you don’t wanna go back to the old homeplace,” he quipped. Justin Hiltner, an openly gay banjo player also based in Nashville, joined Weisberger on stage to perform what they playfully referred to as a “non-gospel” number. Then Hiltner offered up his version of a country two-step. “When I was his and he was mine,” he sang, accentuating the twang in his cascading vocal run. As if heeding the message, two women strode to the open floor and began to two-step.
With Brandon on fiddle, Windy Hill drolly tweaked several bluegrass standards, swapping the gender of certain pronouns in Flatt & Scruggs’ lighthearted display of promiscuous machismo “You’re Not a Drop in the Bucket” and bringing sexual suggestiveness to the soldier-themed folk tune “Two Little Boys.” Plastic cups of rainbow-colored cobbler were passed out for a toast of sorts, and the show evolved into a square dance and jam session.
Before that, Brandon supplied the most sentimental moment of the night with an instrumental version of “Just As I Am,” an old hymn that espouses the belief that God welcomes all souls, no matter their state. A mainstay of Billy Graham altar calls, it could be counted on to stir overwhelming emotion. Brandon’s long, plaintive bow strokes articulated the melody’s deep melancholy, and, to my ears, betrayed the lingering wounds of his own alienation.
On the phone, I asked him why he’d decided to play it. “In the South, if you want to get a tear in the audience, you play a gospel song, right?” I murmured my agreement. “That’s not so much the case in San Francisco. Actually, quite the contrary. But I still did it. I didn’t play it as a specifically religious thing, but just as a thinking back, looking back, knowing what the song means to its core. Just the emotion of that melody itself, that’s kind of what it all meant to me.”
The day of the parade, I reported to the Bluegrass Pride float, hung around for a while, then grew restless and went exploring in my clogging shoes. When I received a text from a friend letting me know that the bluegrassers were finally on the move, I had to run through a couple dozen other groups in order to catch up, my shoes clattering over the pavement. “Have you seen the bluegrass people?” I’d ask marchers as I passed. They all pointed ahead. It was hard to miss one of the only groups performing live music, acoustic at that.
Brandon had invited three bands—a group composed exclusively of young women, an old-time unit led by a musician who identifies as a lesbian, and Laurie Lewis’s outfit, of which he was a part—to take turns on the float’s cramped stage. Their spirited playing echoed off the high-rises along Market Street. “Otherwise, there was typical Pride parade stuff,” Brandon reflected later. “You know, really fit guys in thongs decked out in all this makeup. [Bluegrass] was the other side: just showing diversity in the gay community. . . . It doesn’t have to be Beyoncé or Lady Gaga or something on every float.”
When Lewis’s lineup kicked off the iconic banjo instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” she recalled with delight, “This woman watching the parade started screaming like a Beatles fan or something.”
My friend Stephanie Fields and I danced and whooped our way through the parade. Since she was new to clogging—belly dancing and Southern-style catering being more her thing (she’d supplied the rainbow cobbler at the diversity showcase)—I demonstrated how to do a basic step by shuffling the ball of one foot, rocking back on the other, and returning weight to the first foot. We snaked through the crowd, careful never to get too far from the float, to fall out of sync with the music. Other folks waved flags or handed out copies of the CBA newsletter with a story about Brandon and Justin Hiltner printed on the cover. I snapped a photo of Brandon surveying the scene from just behind the picket fence, like a dignified ship captain. Two months later, we would learn that Bluegrass Pride had beaten out a college marching band, a Latinx trans group, the local branch of Planned Parenthood, and a mainline liberal Protestant congregation for the “Best of the Best Overall Contingent Parade Award.”
I changed out of my clogging shoes before walking several more blocks to an after-party in a small park. Food trucks encircling the perimeter peddled vegan burgers, Filipino delicacies, and artisanal pizza, and one band after another played sets that summoned the ecstasy of having shared in a righteous slog—first, through a robust debate over broadening the boundaries of community, then, a parade route. In a duet, Hiltner and Front Country singer Melody Walker offered a theme song that echoed the folk sing-alongs of the civil rights movement. “Let the rainbow fly, let the banjo sing,” they urged. “When we live and let live, we let freedom ring.” Then Brandon joined Front Country for a frisky string band rendition of the mid-eighties Whitney Houston hit “I Wanna Dance with Somebody (Who Loves Me)”—his idea, this being the one pop song he recognized when he and his boyfriend marched in the parade the year before. On stage, executing lead licks on fiddle and sweating off his rainbow face paint, he looked truly in his element, as though he had found a way to harmonize the facets of his identity he’d once been told couldn’t coexist.
Back in Nashville I found the perfect gift to send Brandon for his thirtieth birthday: a poster-size print of a stern-looking Bill Monroe, Father of Bluegrass, overlaid with the gaudy, unnatural hues of Andy Warhol’s famous Marilyn Monroe painting. I hoped my friend would take it as a tribute to quaintness and camp coexisting.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.