Bluegrass: the color of Diversity

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Bluegrass: The Color of Diversity

by Shelby C. Berry

Bluegrass music affects you in ways other music genres don’t… and can’t, from the community to the friendships, to the love and care shared within the industry. This is what attracted newly minted California Bluegrass Association board member Lani Way to the genre. It’s also why she stays.

Lani found her love for bluegrass in modern bluegrass music through the radio show her husband hosted. From there, she worked her way back to the old-time bluegrass classics.

“I really appreciate the rich history of California bluegrass musicians,” said Lani. “I didn’t really appreciate the depth of the bluegrass community, though, until we raised our kids in it.”

California’s bluegrass programs helped grow her children in a deep, enriching way.

“The California Bluegrass Association kids are supported with kid’s camps and youth academies, allowing them to meet and jam with other kids. That’s where the magic happens.”

Lani’s daughter is finishing her first year at Tulane University in New Orleans and, as Lani explained, people in the bluegrass community she met jamming are those who wrote her recommendations for college last year. “I’ve been stunned by the level of support that my daughter has gotten throughout her life in this community. That’s truly how I went from liking bluegrass to loving bluegrass. When I hear a bluegrass song, I hear this warm and embracing community. The generosity from all of these amazing people has inspired me.”

Lani and her family appreciate the bluegrass community and the California Bluegrass Association (CBA,) specifically. CBA is a non-profit California corporation dedicated to preserving and celebrating old-time and bluegrass music. It is governed by an eleven-member board, of which Lani is now a part.

Spending her day-job as an architect, CBA allows Lani to touch a different part of her passion, allowing her to do so much more in the musical world to be effective – aside from just designing community media centers.

Chatting with Lani amid the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, she shares her love for bluegrass and her hopes for the California Bluegrass Association.

  • The Bluegrass Standard (BGS): How do you feel bluegrass music resonates with fans?

Lani Way (LW): I think that it’s so wonderful. It’s growing and changing, and we’ve been watching it resonate with a greater view of people. The broader definition of bluegrass today is that in bluegrass, the people playing bluegrass are listening to bluegrass.

  • BGS: What got you involved in the California Bluegrass Association?

LW: I’ve just been around for a long time, and I’ve been reaping the benefits of CBA. My daughter going off to college allowed me to have time. Starting the diversity committee has been important. If bluegrass is going to be loved as an art form, we need to expand it. We need to make people included, and that will allow bluegrass to have more listeners and fans. We have to open our doors to a diverse population and provide a safe space for all to participate in the music. We need to promise to listen and learn and improve. That’s one of the things I wanted to bring to bluegrass.

I may even be one of the first non-Caucasion board members in the CBA. In the 1980s when I attended my first bluegrass festival, it was even less diverse than now. I had a moment to pause, wondering if I was okay and welcome. Of course, I was, but I don’t want people to have to wonder. I think being more proactive will bring more fans into the community. There are people more talented than I am that can help make that happen. Bluegrass Pride grew out of the CBA before they were on their own as well.

Along with CBA, I was first asked to join the IBMA host team. With IBMA, I get to see the bluegrass world at large. Last year, I became coordinator after Lucy Smith retired. In the past, we would rent a suite and have a party. It was a wonderful place to gather and listen to acoustic music. There were intimate sessions, jamming with others. It became so crowded that it became unsafe for us and the hotel where we hosted it. Last year, it was moved to a ballroom, and it went really well. Everyone could see and hear. We were even able to be on the convention floor for the first time, and people were still saying they didn’t know bluegrass was a thing in California. I’ve even talked to Keith with The Bluegrass Standard about combining showcase days at IBMA. IBMA is rewarding, and I love to see it in the industry at a larger level.

  • BGS: What about bluegrass music moves you?

LW: I think maybe now it’s because I know the people and their stories in a deeper way. It feels like a deeper community. I feel like I know who they are, even if I don’t know them personally. It feels so reachable. It soothes my soul to see people grow and change. For the first time, I’ve had the opportunity to watch people grow in their music. I watched Molly Tuttle sing her first song and many others like Crying Uncle. I feel like we literally watch families grow up in bluegrass music. It feels like a bluegrass family.

  • BGS: Who are you listening to these days?

LW: At the moment, I’m listening to Jake Blount, Justin Hiltner, and Molly Tuttle. I really enjoy listening to people with diverse backgrounds.

  • BGS: As a woman, what has been your biggest career accomplishments?

LW: In that way, I think I’m at the beginning. There are people out there that have been in the industry for years that are really pushing things forward. There are smart, brilliant women that mentor me. I have a lot to learn from some of the young people in the industry and those that have been around for a while.

  • BGS: What is your goal in the music industry and with CBA?

LW: I want to grow the music and performers. We at CBA are also working on diversity in the music and the performers. I believe that will help us grow the music even more.

Stay up to date with Lani and learn more about the California Bluegrass Association at https://www.cbaweb.org/.