The Vandoliers aren't afraid to make a little noise on the 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 the entire time as a peaceful protest against a law the state had just passed that targeted drag shows.
"We were just seeing all the stuff about the bill on Twitter coming up and knowing it was gonna happen in the near future, I said I'm gonna do this the next time we're in Tennessee, and it just so happened we were gonna be there in two days," says the band's singer Josh Fleming during a road trip to a show in Boston. "It wasn't like a big, planned-out 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 form of gender-affirming care. Violators of the law can be punished with fines or jail time and even face felonies for repeat violations.
Tennessee is the first state to pass legislation restricting drag show performances. Nine more states, including Texas, are considering similar laws, according to NPR.
"The show was really fun," says multi-instrumentalist Cory Graves. "Everything about it was really light-hearted, and it came from a positive place. We walked out to Shania Twain's 'Man, I Feel Like a Woman' and we changed the set to songs we felt were poignant to what we were doing."
The band's symbolic show of support for the LGBTQA+ community also contributed to the energy of the show, even if Fleming says the experience could get a bit "drafty."
"We're always pretty energetic, but it definitely breaks up the monotony of the set," Fleming says. "I get nervous at some shows, not usually if it's a Harley shop in the middle of Tennessee, those are low stakes. There was nervousness at first but it turned into joy. It was really great being able to stand for something and say something meaningful on the microphone other than this song's about my dog — and have a stance and a message for the night."
If there were any offended people at the Vandoliers show, they were drowned out by the buzz of the audience.
"The crowd was super into it, lots of laughter and smiles," Fleming says. "I don't think there was a negative reaction. After the fact, we found out four-ish people or so left, but no one cared."
The buzz 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 and raised over $2,200 for Knoxville Pride and the Tennessee Equality Project.
"It was a sign of solidarity to 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 in the same thing and all wanted to say the same thing at the same time," Graves says. "At no point, we had no idea how the internet was gonna take it. It was just this kind of random act and obviously the next day, it was everywhere and I'm really proud of it honestly. I think it's a wonderful thing."
Fleming says the decision to wear dresses wasn't just to thumb their nose at the people who pass hateful legislation that minimize people who pose no harm. It was to let people know that the Vandoliers’ shows are 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," Fleming says. "We're not a very large band. There's no delusions of grandeur here. It's one of those moments so the people in our lives who support our band and come to our shows, they know they're gonna be OK and be accepted and we're here and we see them and we're not ignorant of it.
"When things like that happen and a lot of people relate to it, a lot of people start thinking there's a plan out and a motive behind it, but it's just such an organized act of love," Fleming adds. "My faith in humanity is restored because it's spread so much and so many people are related to it including outside of the LGBTQA+ community. It's been wonderful to watch."