The Vandolians aren’t afraid to make some noise on stage, but the gesture the Dallas-born band made at a show in Tennessee spoke louder and bolder than their set list could.
The raucous country rock group performed at The Shed Smokehouse & Juke Joint in Maryville, Tennessee, last Thursday and wore dresses throughout as a peaceful protest against a law the state had just passed targeting drag shows.
“We just saw all about the bill on Twitter coming up and knew it was going to happen in the near future, I said I’m going to do this next time we’re in Tennessee and it just so happened that we were going to be there about two days,” says the band’s singer Josh Fleming during a car ride to a show in Boston. “It wasn’t like a big, planned thing. It was a small act of solidarity.”
The target of the band’s protest is a bill drafted by Tennessee State Sen. Jack Johnson and signed by Gov. Bill Mee that expands the scope of restrictions on sex-oriented businesses to include “adult cabaret performances” within 1,000 feet of schools, public parks or churches and prevents transgender children from receiving any type of gender-affirming care. Violators of the law can be punished by fines or imprisonment and even face felony charges for repeated violations.
Tennessee is the first state to pass legislation restricting drag shows. Nine more states, including Texas, considers similar laws, according to NPR.
“The show was a lot of fun,” says multi-instrumentalist Cory Graves. “Everything about it was really lighthearted, and it came from a positive place. We went out to Shania Twain’s ‘Man, I Feel Like a Woman,’ and we changed the set to songs that we felt were poignant for what we were doing.”
The band’s token display of support for the LGBTQA+ community also added to the energy of the show, although Fleming says the experience can get a little “drafty”.
“We’re always pretty energetic, but it definitely breaks up the monotony of the set,” says Fleming. “I get nervous at some shows, usually not if it’s a Harley shop in the middle of Tennessee, it’s low stakes. It was nervous at first, but it turned into joy. It was really great to be able to stand for something and say something meaningful on the mic other than this song is about my dog - and have an attitude and a message for the night.”
If there were any offended at the Vandoliers show, they were drowned out by the roar of the crowd.
“The audience was super into it, lots of laughter and smiles,” says Fleming. “I don’t think there was a negative reaction. Afterwards we found out that four-ish people or so left, but no one cared.”
The buzzing didn’t stop when the show ended. Fans shared photos and videos of the show, and news of the Vandoliers’ drag show statement went viral. The group also auctioned off the dresses they wore to The Shed show, raising over $2,200 for Knoxville Pride and the Tennessee Equality Project.
“It was a sign of solidarity for our LGBTQA+ fans and who are in our lives as people, but also a solid place for our band to come together who all believe the same thing and all wanted to say the same thing at the same time,” Graves says. “At no point did we have any idea how the internet was going to take it. It was just this kind of random act and the next day it was obviously everywhere, and I’m really proud of that honestly. I think it’s an amazing thing. ”
Fleming says the decision to wear dresses wasn’t just thumbing her nose at the people who pass hateful legislation that minimizes people who pose no harm. It was to let people know that Vandolier’s show is a place where they can be themselves and be accepted.
“This whole thing was to let our fans know they’re safe at our shows,” says Fleming. “We’re not a very big band. There’s no delusions of grandeur here. It’s one of those moments where the people in our lives who support our band and come to our shows, they know they’re going to make it and be accepted and we are here and we see them and we are not ignorant of it.
“When things like this happen and a lot of people relate to it, a lot of people start to think there’s a plan and a motive behind it, but it’s just an organized act of love,” adds Fleming. “My faith in humanity has been restored because it has spread so much and so many people relate to it, including outside the LGBTQA+ community. It’s been amazing to see.”