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Hiltner and Weisberger Bring A “Cleansing Fire” To The Old Bluegrass Social Order

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Bethany Carson
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Jon Weisberger (L) and Justin Hiltner

One of the dominant conversations in bluegrass in the past few years has been about inclusion and diversity. Banjo player Justin Hiltner has taken a leadership position as an openly gay banjo player and an organizer of a movement variously called Shout & Shine and Bluegrass Pride. Hiltner’s new duo album with songwriter and bass player Jon Weisberger, released this month and entitled Watch It Burn, became a chance to live that ethic at many levels.

For one, it’s a generation spanning project. Hiltner, an emerging artist, is 26 while Weisberger is a 65-year-old veteran of the music who’s won International Bluegrass Music Association awards as a journalist and songwriter. Weisberger, who says he’s co-written with roughly 100 other songwriters, was glad to work on songs when Hiltner approached him six years ago, and they’ve been keeping periodic appointments ever since.

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Watch It Burn is new on North Carolina's Robust Records.

But with a history of mentorship and reverence for elder musicians in bluegrass, the age bridge was an easy one to cross. More challenging to the traditional order are issues of sexuality, gender, ethnicity and politics. Hiltner’s efforts at widening the bluegrass community include organizing two well-received Shout & Shine Diversity Showcase shows at the IBMA convention in Raleigh, NC with a third planned for Sept. 24. And without getting too overt about it, those values are behind the title of Watch It Burn.

Bluegrass, says Hiltner, is “a community. It’s a set of esthetics and musical guidelines that we all really love. If we were burn down all the rest, the trappings we’ve all become enamored with and the commercial stuff and leave what was left we would still have a pretty great genre.”

While Weisberger adds, “We want you to play bluegrass no matter who you are or where you come from.”

After six years of co-writing, the musicians shifted gears from thinking of their songs as fodder for other artists to record (Weisberger has had many songs cut by bluegrass acts) and shifted to the mindset of being the artists themselves. That meant rounding out ensembles for studio sessions, an opportunity for inclusion if ever there was one -along with the possibility of a stumble.

“One of the important things to remain cognizant of and always be on my toes about is when I fall into tokenism,” Hiltner says, referring to the effort to build a band around who’s been marginalized in bluegrass – gay, African-American, non-Christian, etc. – instead of who’s going to achieve the intended sound. He found though that all he and Weisberger needed to do was draw on their existing community of colleagues and musical friends, in itself a diverse group of pickers. The personnel includes acoustic guitarist Molly Tuttle, mandolinists Casey Campbell and Tristan Scroggins, fiddler Brandon Goodman and bluegrass star Tim O’Brien.

“The things that are most important to Jon and I musically, ideologically, worldview and otherwise came through the record because we put ourselves on the record, not because we were wringing our hands trying to figure out how do we squeeze those things out of the album,” Hiltner says.

Jon Weisberger points to another subtle way the album speaks to inclusion around the age-old tension in bluegrass between traditional and progressive sounds. “Many times people correlate greater inclusion and diversity in bluegrass with musical edginess. So that the diversity of people tends to find its reflection on the fringes of bluegrass music.”

Yet Weisberger has long been a champion for the core, 70-year-old bluegrass sound and he saw this album as a chance to prove a case. “We wanted to show that you could make compelling, traditional-leaning bluegrass with a diverse cast – of men and women, young and old, gay and straight – to show there really is this love and respect for the ability to play not edgy bluegrass by people who in some circles would be seen as kind of being edgy or peripherally connected to the normative bluegrass community.”

As for his own take on the album and its title, Weisberger says, “That image of a cleansing fire that sort of reduces things down to its essentials and lets you work on something new is something we both had in mind.”

IBMA’s World of Bluegrass takes place Sept. 25 to 29 in Raleigh. Weisberger is nominated as Songwriter of the Year as well as for a Momentum Award as a bluegrass mentor. Hiltner is nominated for a Momentum Award for Industry Involvement.

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