Friday, June 26, 2020

Jake Blount on Bridging the Gaps in American Roots Music | Spotify for Artists

The Black and queer musician opens up about the challenges of breaking down barriers in old-time and bluegrass.

Jake Blount’s Spider Tales is a stunning slice of old-time music, also known as American roots. Not only does he reclaim the Black string-band tradition on his sophomore album, but the 24-year-old also manages to give it a voice that speaks directly to the struggles of both people of color and the LGBTQ+ community in the 21st century.

Residing in Providence, RI, Blount belongs to a cluster of modern artists—including Amythyst Kiah, Kaia Kater, Allison Russell, and the Carolina Chocolate Drops—who challenge the widespread, historically inaccurate conception of old-time music as solely a white Southern tradition. Utilizing both performance and education, they’re dedicated to highlighting the central role Black musicians have played in the music’s evolution. In order to do this, however, Blount has had to navigate a music scene whose network of festivals and jams throughout the country is still predominantly led by straight white people..

Overlapping with his career in old-time music is Blount’s organizing in the bluegrass scene. He serves on the board of Bluegrass Pride, whose mission it is to support, connect, and lift up LGBTQ+ pickers and fiddlers. In addition to a host of educational and community-building resources, the San Francisco organization programs jams and events, including this month’s Porch Pride digital festival, where Blount will perform.

As our recent conservation bears out, Blount’s artistic journey offers valuable insights for musicians of color and LGBTQ+ artists looking to make inroads in scenes that once seemed inaccessible to them. On top of that, his work with Bluegrass Pride is a testament to how collective, grassroots action is an invaluable tool when it comes to breaking down barriers in the music industry.

Spotify for Artists: What’s it like for a Black and queer musician to make a name for himself in genre scenes that are associated with white mountain culture?

Jake Blount: We’re told a lot of things about Appalachian people, that they’re not welcoming of people of color or queer people. I have not found that to be true, though I would be lying if I said all of my experiences have been positive. If I have faced any struggle, it is due to my involvement with Black Lives Matter. There are people who want me to shut up and just play music. This is something Black musicians have been told for a long time. It has taken me time to realize I may not be welcomed by everyone but, by and large, people are ready to have these conversations.

When musicians learn the old-time tradition, they almost always journey into the American South and Appalachia to study with fiddlers and pickers. What was that like for you?

It was scary at first. My dad is from the South and, with the exception of visiting grandparents, he did not take us there. He shielded us from it. I expected very specific things from Appalachia, but I have since learned that all of the problems that are supposedly endemic to the region [exist] all throughout the United States. It is important for musicians to find the right people no matter where you are. I did this in Appalachia.

It’s such an immersive approach to learning a style of music. How did it shape your career?

When you first enter the old-time scene, you are not entering it as a performer but rather just another participant at festivals and jams. There is no clear divide between performer and audience member. If you put in the time and market yourself a certain way, you are eventually seen as a “professional.” To be a part of something that is collective, with a feeling that my audience are friends and equals, is a different way to build a career.

This emphasis on collectivism carries over to your work as a board member of Bluegrass Pride. Can you discuss the impact of the organization?

I often felt that there were queer people in old-time and bluegrass, but there wasn't much open collaboration and appreciation of community, so I appreciate what Bluegrass Pride has been able to do to bring folks together and make ourselves visible. Knowing that it exists was enough to get a lot of folks to be more vocal and create our own little scene both within the old-time and bluegrass scenes and the LGBTQ+ community. And it’s not just about queer and transgender people who may need a space for planning, sharing resources, and keeping ourselves safe. There are also straight musicians of varying levels of acclaim who have advocated alongside us for diversity writ large at our Bluegrass Pride celebrations, as well as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass festival. The community momentum is there to make the kind of changes we want to see and it is more than just a matter of planning different events, like this year’s Porch Pride digital festival. It involves creating resources, like the safe venue directory we are [working on].

In addition to performing, you give lectures on Black string-band music. It seems old-time musicians have long been expected to know the music’s history. What can you tell us about that aspect of the scene?

There is a lot of homework. You do not get credit in old-time just for playing fiddle tunes really well. You have to know where they come from. You need to be able to talk about the person from whom you learned them. It is important to put that person in context of a region or the country as a whole. Another key component is being able to talk not just about the past but the present. If I am giving a talk about the Black string-band tradition, I rarely talk about dead musicians from the ’20s. Instead, I talk about modern musicians, as well as the cool work being done by Black traditional musicians in the educational sphere, like what Brandi Waller-Pace is doing with the Decolonizing the Music Room project.

That seems vital. Rather than musicians competing with one another in the marketplace, it’s more like a mutual aid group.

Taking advantage of your platform is an important way to leave a mark on the industry. Just one of the things I respect about Rhiannon Giddens is how she has used her platform to uplift other Black string-band artists. She invited me to open for her. She invited Amythyst Kiah to open for her. She has paved an easier path for the rest of us striving for sustainable careers. A big part of that goes back to her historical knowledge and her framing of her work within the context of this broad tradition. It makes it a lot more intuitive for her to bring up other people. In my opinion, you have to give to a scene in order for the scene to give back to you. I think the old-time scene is an incredible example of that.

-Justin Farrar


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