The worlds collided just outside Nashville, Tenn., last month when Bertha, possibly the first all-drag Grateful Dead tribute band in history, took the stage at D's Country Cocktail Lounge with pitch-perfect renditions of classics ranging from “Sugaree” to “Dragon.” “Scarlet Begonias.” The eight-person collective, formed in reaction to Tennessee's newly inked anti-drag and anti-trans laws, raised money for a local queer- and trans-supportive organizations,
But it's also revolutionary for other reasons—namely, to merge a queer, feminist ethos with a male-dominated, heterosexual Deadhead scene, says co-founder Melody Walker, who founded Bertha, a band for girls, lesbians, and gays. They say. And they.”
In other words, says Walker, a bisexual Nashville resident who was making music with his front country The band was, until recently, collectively referred to as “gender diverse, sexual diverse, anyone who likes, a misfit who is not accepted in the Dead community, and who is also in drag and pop music and the Dead.” “It's a place to celebrate and find joy,” she says.
Bertha, named after a 1971 Dead tune and known by Grateful Drag on Instagram, began as “a crazy, silly idea” between Walker and her friend Caitlin Doyle, both Californians who had relocated to Nashville. “She was a Deadhead,” says Walker, “and I was becoming more appreciative, listening to live shows, and we were talking about why there weren't more female or female-fronted Grateful Dead bands? Tribute bands. There's a whole industry of.” Jo admits she's a late fan, having never been to a Dead show. Mostly, she appreciates the intricacies of music.
Doyle, 41, tells Yahoo Entertainment that she grew up on the Grateful Dead's music, thanks to her father, who followed the band in the '70s and made it the soundtrack to his summer family roadtrips. “The day Jerry Garcia died, I remember we were in Oregon and my father bought me a tie-dye while crying,” she says. 1995 is passing Iconic lead guitarist-vocalist.
last journey), and says that Bertha's launch with Walker came at the perfect time. his 10-year stint on tour with his band Smooth Hound Smith The bus had come to a halt due to the pandemic, and she felt ready for a new challenge.
Walker says of the Real Dead, “Grateful Dead music is really difficult, and so they had a tall order to do those harmonies.” “I've always wanted to have a band where we could nail those harmonies.” In addition, she and Doyle “wanted to start an all-female Grateful Dead cover band,” both as a feminist shoutout and as an inspiration to Donna Jean Godchaux, the only female Dead member who sang with the band in the 1970s. But he had trouble rustling up enough female Deadhead musicians.
That's when he thought: What about drag?
He put his idea on the back burner, in the hope that one day it would work. But then Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee gave them the big push they needed to limit the state law — specifically, criminalizing those performing on public property or where they could be seen by minors — which he signed on March 2. signed into law (though a Federal judge temporarily blocks law hours before it takes effect). Simultaneously, Lee signed a bill banning gender-affirming health care for minors, which is currently being challenged by the Justice Department.
“We were like, ‘Does this mean we have to do Bertha? We have to do this?' Walker recalls. “And we literally booked a date at the local dive that's a go-to for musicians,” says D, above, housed in a pair of double-wide trailers and tucked behind an adult toy store. Drag, especially for four cisgender women, called for some creativity—especially since anti-drag laws specifically go after “male or female impersonators.”
“I was going for a ling-f**king king” she says, noting her painted facial hair, while others go for “funky-female glitter-bearded drag” or “kind of a Mad Hatter vibe”. were taken “We're still on the fence about the best way to demystify it,” she says, noting that “pulling the high-feminine as a cis woman” is a legit expression of camp, even on drag race,
The April 29 performance attracted a mixed and passionate crowd that raised $4,000 for local pro-LGBTQ causes. it also attracted its share media attentionincluding an online Rolling stone photo spread,
Part of the allure, the band members say, is the fact that deadheads and drag queens make strange bedfellows—at least at first blush.
Doyle says, “Growing up around music with my dad and his friends, I just saw it as a hetero thing – like, friends like jam bands. It's a manly thing, and the whole industry is male-dominated.” Is.” Bisexual. “But it's come to the realization that there are a lot of queer deadheads.”
That's something that isn't exactly lost on Joe Rivera, 51. queer deadheads instagram accountwhich helped spread the word about Bertha and is dedicated to showcasing cultural intersections — including how Keith Haring wrote about following the band back in 1977, and how the Dead were one of the first rock bands to perform AIDS benefit concertIn 1989.
“They've always been allies since the beginning,” says Rivera, of San Francisco, who tells Yahoo Life that he first went to see a Dead show as a teen when he struggled with a “closeted queer boy.” his identity at the height of the AIDS epidemic. He had seen Madonna for the first time two weeks earlier, and at first found the strange dead scene “a little creepy”. And only then, he recalls, “sexy bob weir in short jeans come out in shorts and a madonna t-shirt …and I thought, The universe is sending me a message. And from there it changed my life.”
When contacted by Yahoo Entertainment, Weir was unavailable for comment.
Rivera says, “What I love about Bertha is that she's playing Grateful Dead music and wearing drag—and that alone is a protest.” “It's the perfect combination to me, and means a lot. The Dead have always been weird. They've always been a little weird. And drag can be funny, dark, stupid… as long as it's kind, and that's what this Kind of like the Grateful Dead.”
Perhaps the best-known, most visible queer deadhead, Andy Cohen – who posted and spoke about listening to the Grateful Dead with his son and who recently interviewed Weir watch live what happens Says the idea of a drag-dead band doesn't seem so far-fetched.
He told Yahoo Entertainment, “Part of the experience of being deadhead is embracing the freedom and joy that music brings you, and that embrace happens with the gay community.” ,
“The larger meaning,” emphasizes Doyle, “is that there is room for everyone.”
Bertha's next gig is coming up this fall, Walker says — though she tried to book one sooner, and the response she received reinforced the importance of her goal.
“We tried to book another show that's all-ages, but they were too scared to do it, and recently canceled another show with a possible drag element,” he says of the venue. Says where she contacted. “There is even a restraining law against [anti-drag] Law right now, so it's really disappointing. It has a chilling effect that is very real.”
While Walker says she has no plans to leave the state, acknowledging that she has “a lot of privileges as a bi woman in passing relationships,” she has trans friends who are leaving or planning to leave. are planning. “It's been really dark. It's been a really difficult time for them. So we're actively trying to push back.”
Most important to Bertha is that it moves, she says, adding that the performance is “always a benefit element,” and that they welcome skilled musicians who perform no matter where they sit. “We are not drag performers, we are musicians. There is not enough cross-pollination between the drag and live music community [although there is been some], and we need it. We need more solidarity and more community so that we can understand each other.”
That's why, no matter who sits next to Bertha in the future – even Grateful Dead royalty – they'll have to put on a wig and full makeup first.
“If [Bob Weir] Bertha wants to play with,” Walker says, a hopeful glint in his eye, “Bobby has to be in drag.”