This all-drag Grateful Dead tribute band is fighting the Tenn. ban by providing 'a place to celebrate and find joy'
The musicians of Bertha are proving that drag queens and the Grateful Dead are not such strange bedfellows.
Worlds collided last month just outside of Nashville, Tenn., when Bertha, likely the first all-drag Grateful Dead tribute band in history, took the stage at Dee's Country Cocktail Lounge with bewigged and pitch-perfect renditions of classics from "Sugaree" to "Scarlet Begonias." The eight-person collective, formed in defiant response to Tennessee's newly inked anti-drag and anti-trans laws, raised funds for local queer- and trans-supportive organizations.
But it's revolutionary for other reasons, too — namely, for merging a queer, feminist ethos with what's largely been a male-dominated, heteronormative Deadhead scene, says co-founder Melody Walker, who calls Bertha a band "for the girls, the gays and the theys."
In other words, says Walker, a bisexual Nashville resident who'd been making music with her own Front Country band until recently, the collective embraces "gender diversity, sexual diversity, anyone who's, like, a misfit who hasn't felt accepted in the Dead community, and who's also into drag and pop music and the Dead." She adds, "It's a place to celebrate and find joy."
Bertha, deriving its name from the eponymous 1971 Dead tune and going by Grateful Drag on Instagram, started as "kind of a crazy, silly idea" between Walker and her friend Caitlin Doyle, both Californians who relocated to Nashville. "She was a Deadhead, and I was getting more appreciative, listening to live shows, and we were talking about, why are there not more female or female-fronted Grateful Dead bands? There's a whole industry of tribute bands," says Walker, who admits she's a "late-blooming super fan," having always adored many of the studio albums but never been to a Dead show. Mostly, she appreciates the intricacies of the music.
Doyle, 41, tells Yahoo Entertainment she was raised on the music of the Grateful Dead thanks to her dad, who followed the band around in the '70s and made it the soundtrack of their summer family roadtrips. "The day Jerry Garcia died I remember we were in Oregon and my dad cried and bought me a tie-dye," she says of the 1995 passing of the iconic lead guitarist-vocalist.
She finally saw a live show a few years back, of Dead & Company (the band's latest incarnation, with Bob Weir at the helm, about to kick off its Final Tour), and says the launching of Bertha with Walker came at the perfect time. Her 10-year stint of touring with her band Smooth Hound Smith had just come to a halt due to the pandemic, and she was feeling up to a new challenge.
"Grateful Dead music is really hard, and so they had a tall order for themselves to do those harmonies," Walker says of the actual Dead. "I've always wanted to have a band where we can nail those harmonies." Also, she and Doyle "wanted to start all-women Grateful Dead cover band," as both a feminist shoutout to and inspiration of Donna Jean Godchaux, the only female Dead member ever, who sang with the band throughout the 1970s. But they had trouble rustling up enough female Deadhead musicians locally in Nashville.
That's when they thought: What about drag?
They kept their idea on the back burner, hoping to get it going some day. But then Tennessee's Gov. Bill Lee gave them the big push they needed with the state's law limiting drag — specifically, criminalizing those performed on public property or where they could be viewed by minors — which he signed into law on March 2 (though a federal judge temporarily halted the law hours before it was to take effect). Simultaneously, Lee signed into law 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 make it happen?'" recalls Walker. "And we literally just booked a date at the local dive bar that is the musicians' go-to," the aforementioned Dee's, housed in a pair of double-wide trailers and tucked behind an adult toy store. Getting into drag, especially for the four cisgender women, called for some creativity — especially since the anti-drag law specifically goes after "male or female impersonators."
"I was going for a gender-f***" look she says, noting her painted-on facial hair, while others went for "funky-femme glitter-beard drag" or a "kind of Mad Hatter vibe." She says, "We're still on the fence about the best way to subvert it," noting that doing "high-femme drag as a cis woman" is a legit expression of camp, even on Drag Race.
The April 29 performance drew a mixed and passionate crowd that raised $4,000 for local LGBTQ-supportive causes. It also attracted its share of media attention, including with an online Rolling Stone photo spread.
Part of the fascination, say band members, is the fact that Deadheads and drag queens make strange bedfellows — at least at first blush.
"Growing up around the music with my dad and his friends, I just saw it as a hetero thing — like, dudes like jam bands. It's a guy thing, and the whole industry is male-dominated," says Doyle, who identifies as bisexual. "But there's been this realization that there's a lot of queer Deadheads."
It's something not at all lost on Joe Rivera, 51, who runs the Queer Deadheads Instagram account, which helped spread the word about Bertha and is dedicated to showcasing the cultural intersections — including how Keith Haring wrote about following the band back in 1977, and how the Dead was among the first rock bands to do an AIDS benefit concert, in 1989.
"They've always been an ally, from the beginning," says Rivera, of San Francisco, Calif., who tells Yahoo Entertainment that he first went to check out a Dead show as a teen, when he was a "closeted queer boy" grappling with 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 freaky Dead scene to be "a little scary." And that's when, he recalls, "sexy Bob Weir comes out in these short jean shorts and a Madonna T-shirt … and I thought, the universe is sending me a message. And from there, it just changed my life."
When reached by Yahoo Entertainment, Weir was unavailable for comment.
"What I love about Bertha is all they're doing is playing Grateful Dead music and wearing drag — and that, alone, is a protest," Rivera says. "It's the perfect combination to me, and makes so much sense. The Dead have always been weird. They've always been a little strange. And drag can be funny, dark, stupid… as long as it's kind, and that's kind of like the Grateful Dead."
Perhaps the most famous, most visible queer Deadhead, Andy Cohen — who has posted and spoken about listening to the Grateful Dead with his son and who recently interviewed Weir on Watch What Happens Live — says that the idea of a drag-Dead band doesn't seem so far-fetched.
“Part of the experience of being a Deadhead is embracing the freedom and joy that music brings you, and that same embrace goes hand in hand with the gay community," he tells Yahoo Entertainment. "So the intersection of the two communities makes perfect sense!"
"The bigger meaning," stresses Doyle, "is that there's room for everyone."
Bertha's next gig is coming this fall — though they did try to book one sooner, and the response they received just solidified the importance of their goal, says Walker.
"We tried to book a second show that is all-ages, but they were just too scared to do it, and had recently canceled another show with a possible drag element," she says of the venue they had approached. "There's even an injunction against the [anti-drag] law right now, so that is really disheartening. 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 privilege as a bi woman in a passing relationship," she does have trans friends who are leaving or planning to leave. "It's really dark. It's been a really hard time for them. It's why we are trying to actively push back."
Most important for Bertha as it moves forward, she says, is that performances "always have a benefit element," and that they welcome skilled musicians who get where they're coming from to sit in. "We're not drag performers, we're musicians. There's not enough cross-pollination between drag and the live music community [although there has been some], and we need that. We need more solidarity and more community so that we understand each other."
It's why, no matter who sits in with Bertha in the future — even Grateful Dead royalty — they've got to first get into a wig and full makeup.
"If [Bob Weir] wants to come play with Bertha," says Walker, a hopeful twinkle in her eye, "Bobby has to be in drag."