When Melody Walker and her friend Caitlin Doyle first envisioned the Grateful Dead tribute band Bertha, Tennessee’s legislature hadn’t yet introduced legislation limiting drag performance. The Nashville musicians were just daydreaming about an all-women Dead tribute group, but soon landed on the idea of doing it in drag.
“I was like, ‘It would still be an all-woman band if everyone was in drag,” Walker says. “It was a joke. And I was like, ‘Wait, but how hilarious and amazing would that be?’ We were cracking up at the idea of how joyful and irreverent that would be and how in the spirit of the Grateful Dead it would be.”
And thus Bertha (named after the Dead song, with the name stylized in all caps) came to be. Walker, the singer for progressive bluegrass band Front Country, and Doyle, formerly of the duo Smooth Hound Smith, recruited other musicians in their orbit including Jacob Groopman (Walker’s partner and Front Country bandmate), singer-songwriter Lindsay Lou, drummer Alex Bice, guitarist Thomas Bryan Eaton, banjoist Kyle Tuttle, and fiddler Milly Raccoon to get in drag and play some Dead tunes.
When Tennessee’s law restricting drag was introduced, they organized their first gig for April 29 at Dee’s Country Cocktail Lounge in Madison to raise money for local LGBTQ+ causes. They packed the place out with a colorful performance dedicated to the Dead’s countercultural spirit and the group’s many followers over the years who are women and/or queer.
“It’s honoring the fact that there have always been queer Deadheads, there have always been so many women in the scene, but maybe they haven’t been uplifted and celebrated they way they should be,” Walker says. The group’s set included the song that inspired their name along with “Brown Eyed Women,” “Loose Lucy,” “Scarlet Begonias,” “Sugar Magnolia” and several others.
Marlene Twitty-Fargo, a local drag performer who performs hilariously raunchy reworks of popular country songs in her own band, hosted the event, which has so far raised nearly $4,000 to be split between Inclusion Tennessee, Trans Aid Nashville, and Williamson County Trans Aid. Walker says they’re already thinking about another benefit gig in a larger venue, and with Bertha’s collectivist mentality — all of its members assume the name Bertha — it makes room for a revolving cast of players and special guests.
“We can be a rotating lineup, we can have special guest Berthas,” Walker says. “Everyone is subsuming their identity toward this cause of creating this monstrosity called Bertha. And that’s kind of similar to how the Dead did their music. They were all about having this unified mind, this collective mind. We took our drag identity that way.”
One thing that surprised Walker about the event at Dee’s was who turned up to see the show — it largely wasn’t her own musician friends, but instead a mix of younger folks and old Deadheads, and even some who had just seen the poster and logo and wanted to come see what it was about. Even Brothers Osborne singer TJ Osborne popped in.
“We’re secretly pilling Deadheads into more queer, femme expression and we’re also pilling young queer kids and women into Grateful Dead music,” Walker says. “It’s kind of cool!”