Bertha, an extraordinary all-drag Grateful Dead tribute band, is challenging Tennessee’s ban on drag performances by providing a vibrant space for celebration and joy.
In a groundbreaking fusion , Bertha merges the world of drag queens with the iconic melodies of the Grateful Dead, breaking traditional expectations.
Their recent performance at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge, just outside Nashville, left audiences in awe as they flawlessly delivered beloved classics like “Sugaree” and “Scarlet Begonias” in full drag attire.
Comprised of eight talented individuals, Bertha formed as a defiant response to Tennessee’s newly implemented anti-drag and anti-trans laws, simultaneously raising funds for local organizations that support the queer and trans communities.
Co-founder Melody Walker emphasizes the revolutionary nature of Bertha, blending a queer, feminist ethos with the traditionally male-dominated and heteronormative Deadhead scene.
Describing Bertha as a band “for the girls, the gays, and the theys,” Walker highlights their inclusive embrace of gender and sexual diversity.
Bertha serves as a sanctuary for those who feel like misfits within the Dead community, as well as for drag enthusiasts and pop music aficionados.
Their purpose is simple yet powerful: to create a space where people can come together to celebrate and find joy.
The inception of Bertha, whose name pays homage to the eponymous 1971 Dead tune, arose from a seemingly crazy and silly idea shared between Walker and her friend Caitlin Doyle, both Californian transplants now residing in Nashville.
Inspired by Doyle’s love for the Grateful Dead and the scarcity of female or female-fronted Dead tribute bands, Walker, who had always appreciated the studio albums but never attended a live Dead show, recognized the complexity and beauty of the music.
Doyle, whose father immersed her in the Grateful Dead’s music during their summer family road trips, saw Bertha as an exciting opportunity after her band’s touring halted due to the pandemic.
Acknowledging the immense challenge of performing Grateful Dead music with its intricate harmonies, Walker expressed her desire to create a band that could flawlessly execute those harmonies.
They also aimed to pay tribute to Donna Jean Godchaux, the only female member of the Dead, who made a significant impact with her vocal contributions during the 1970s. However, their search for female Deadhead musicians in Nashville proved arduous.
That’s when they had a revelation: why not incorporate drag?
Initially, they kept the idea on the back burner, hoping to realize it someday.
However, Tennessee’s Governor Bill Lee unwittingly provided the catalyst they needed by signing a law restricting drag performances, including criminalizing acts on public property or in view of minors.
Simultaneoususly, Lee also signed a bill prohibiting gender-affirming healthcare for minors, a measure currently facing legal challenges.
Faced with these limitations on artistic expression and civil rights, Walker and Doyle felt compelled to bring Bertha to life.
They promptly booked a performance at the local dive bar, Dee’s, a popular spot among musicians, housed inconspicuously behind an adult toy store.
As the law targets “male or female impersonators,” devising appropriate drag looks presented a creative challenge, with Walker opting for a gender-fluid appearance featuring painted-on facial hair, while others embraced a funky-femme glitter-beard aesthetic or a whimsical Mad Hatter vibe.
Finding the best way to subvert the law remains a subject of ongoing consideration, but they recognize that high-femme drag, even for cisgender women, represents a legitimate expression of camp and artistry.
The performance on April 29 garnered an enthusiastic and diverse audience, raising an impressive $4,000 in support of local LGBTQ causes.
Notably, the event also captured significant media attention, including a feature in Rolling Stone’s online photo spread.
One of the intriguing aspects, as highlighted by band members, is the unexpected pairing of Deadheads and drag queens. Initially, the music scene surrounding the Grateful Dead was perceived as predominantly heterosexual and male-dominated, seen as a “guy thing.”
However, there has been a growing realization that there is a substantial presence of queer Deadheads.
Joe Rivera, the curator of the Queer Deadheads Instagram account, is acutely aware of this cultural intersection.
Through his platform, he showcases various connections, such as Keith Haring’s writings about following the band in 1977 and the Grateful Dead’s pioneering AIDS benefit concert in 1989.
Rivera, a San Francisco resident, shares his personal experience as a closeted queer teenager attending his first Dead show during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Previously captivated by Madonna, he initially found the eccentric Dead scene slightly intimidating.
However, his perspective changed dramatically when Bob Weir, sporting short jean shorts and a Madonna T-shirt, took the stage. In that moment, he felt a profound connection and realized the transformative power of the Dead’s music.
Rivera expresses admiration for Bertha, emphasizing that their blend of playing Grateful Dead music while dressed in drag serves as a form of protest.
To him, it’s a perfect fusion that aligns with the Dead’s inherent quirkiness. Drag, which can range from funny to dark to downright silly, shares a kind-heartedness that resonates with the essence of the Grateful Dead.
Andy Cohen, a prominent figure in the queer Deadhead community, echoes these sentiments.
As a well-known television personality, he has shared his enjoyment of listening to the Grateful Dead with his son and recently interviewed Bob Weir on Watch What Happens Live.
For Cohen, the idea of a drag-Dead band isn’t far-fetched at all. He believes that being a Deadhead involves embracing the freedom and joy that music brings, an embrace that naturally aligns with the gay community.
Thus, the convergence of these two communities makes perfect sense.
Doyle emphasizes the broader significance of Bertha’s endeavors, emphasizing that their mission is to create space for everyone.
Looking ahead, Bertha has plans for their next performance in the fall. Despite attempting to secure an earlier show, they encountered resistance, reinforcing the importance of their mission.
Walker highlights that they tried to organize an all-ages show, but the venue was too apprehensive, having recently canceled another event with potential drag elements.
Furthermore, there is currently an injunction against the anti-drag law, amplifying the disheartening and chilling effects it has had on the community.
While Walker acknowledges her privilege as a bisexual woman in a passing relationship and does not have immediate plans to leave the state, she recognizes the hardships faced by her trans friends who are considering or already leaving Tennessee.
The current situation is disconcerting and motivates Bertha to actively resist these oppressive measures.
Moving forward, Bertha is committed to incorporating a charitable element into their performances, ensuring that each show contributes to a worthy cause.
They also welcome talented musicians who share their understanding and vision to join them on stage.
Walker emphasizes that they are musicians rather than solely drag performers. She stresses the need for greater cross-pollination between the drag and live music communities, fostering solidarity and a deeper sense of community understanding.
Hence, regardless of who may join Bertha in the future, even if it were Grateful Dead royalty like Bob Weir himself, they would be required to don wigs and full makeup.