Nashville-based musicians are coming together in a big way — a Bridgestone Arena-sized way — tonight for “Love Rising,” a benefit concert to raise awareness and funds for the LGBTQ community and its allies in the face of Tennessee legislation that is seen as targeting the rights of gay and trans people generally and drag performers specifically. The generously star-packed show is also being livestreamed internationally via the Veeps platform, with $14.99 tickets available here for a show that begins at 7:30 Nashville time, aka 8:30 ET/5:30 PT.
The wide-ranging bill of rock, country, pop, indie and Americana performers includes Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Sheryl Crow, Maren Morris, Brothers Osborne, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Yola, Brittany Howard, Hozier, Adeem the Artist, Julien Baker, Joy Oladokun, Jake Wesley Rogers and Mya Byrne, along with co-organizer Allison Russell. Late additions to the show since it was first announced include a greater contingent of non-binary and, yes, drag artists from Tennessee on top of the nationally known names.
Allison Russell and radio personality Hunter Kelly, who were key figures in conceptualizing the Bridgestone benefit and making it happen, spoke with Variety on the eve of the show about how the concert came to be, and what they hope to accomplish with it in a state where LGBTQ people are feeling under threat from their own state government, despite Nashville itself being a mecca in the South for members of those communities.
The multiply Grammy-nominated Russell, who has recently become a marquee artist herself, before and after winning the album of the award from the Americana Music Association, talked up the potency of the bill she helped put together to combat those bills coming out of the state legislature. “These are the artists who just cared so much that they took time out of their insane schedules to be here with us for joyful assembly and resistance to support our greater LGBTQ+ community, but also to stand up for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness in America. Haylee just opened for Taylor Swift (in Arizona for two nights over the weekend), and she’s hightailing it back here to be part of this show. Hozier just dropped his EP and has a thousand commitments to his time, and he’s making time to be here for all of us.
“And Maren Morris — oh my God. She deserves her own street named after her in this town, particularly because she has been in the belly of the beast, of coming up out of that Music Row/mainstream country world and refusing to kowtow to the spoken and unspoken bigotry. She has put herself in harm’s way to stand up for our community. The kind of rhetoric that’s going on in our legislature is stirring up violent sentiment, and she had death threats after Jason Aldean called her out at his show at Bridgestone [after an online dustup between Morris and Aldean’s wife, Brittany, over trans issues]. So to me it feels very, very healing that we are going to that venue. There’s never been a show like this put on at Bridgestone before. And it is a precedent that needs to be set and that needs to be repeated, and I hope that it’s a template that can be used in other places that are horrifically beleaguered” with LGBTQ-targeting legislation, like Florida and Texas.
Hunter Kelly is a longtime correspondent for ABC News Radio and other news outlets who now hosts the world’s first major gay-themed country radio show, “Proud Radio,” on Apple Music. He is not proud of the state he has called home since he was 18 — and, in fact, just recently decided to move away from Tennessee in the near future, due to what he sees as an increasingly hostile climate for his community. Before he goes, though, he’s going out on a bang by helping organize the “Love Rising” show as well as co-writing the script for it.
Kelly loves the bill that’s been put together, though he admittedly wishes there were more mainstream country stars on it, of the kind he has long championed, besides Morris and Brothers Osborne, the duo that includes TJ Osborne, one of the core genre’s few out stars. (Among those country stars not performing, Trisha Yearwood has urged her fans to attend the benefit.)
“I would’ve liked to have been pleasantly surprised by anyone in mainstream country music in the past few weeks,” says Kelly, of artists speaking up — or not — about the Tennessee legislation generally. “You have the ones who always speak up, but with a lot of these mainstream country artists, it just goes completely silent when it comes to politics. But for me, this isn’t politics. It’s my life,” and that of others, at stake, he believes. “So, it’s illuminating.”
Kelly is also working on a smaller benefit planned for Nashville’s City Winery on Tuesday, in conjunction with Holly G and her organization the Black Opry, putting the focus even more on local LGBTQ artists. City Winery will also be separately hosting a drag brunch benefit — which, technically, could fall afoul of Tennessee’s new anti-drag law, since the venue is within 1,000 feet of a church… as is nearly every venue in the famously church-riddled city. Such shows might be all right if there is no hint of “prurient interest” — an undefined qualification that might fit any cross-dressing performance, by the right-ward standards of the people making and possibly enforcing these fresh laws.
It may be drag and trans rights that are at the forefront of right-wing politicians’ agendas at the moment, Kelly says, but he believes that within the next two years the Tennessee legislature and others may have an open door to de-legalize same-sex marriages, too, like his own.
Says Kelly, “We had a rally on Valentine’s Day here in Nashville” — one attended by Morris and her singer-songwriter husband Ryan Hurd, he notes — “and then went into the hearing room for the drag felony bill. And we were all there in solidarity, but it was just really clear that there was no stopping these bills, no matter what, because ultimately this is the GOP’s strategy going into 2024, and the super-majority in the legislature here in Tennessee and our governor, are in lockstep with this. It’s very scary, too, because having Daily Wire here in Nashville (since 2020), you have Matt Walsh and Candace Owens, and then Michael Knowles, who is the man at CPAC who called for the eradication of transgenderism, which is the eradication of transgender people.” (Knowles threatened to sue several news organizations that reported that he had advocated the actual eradication of trans people, though Kelly and others in the community don’t see a distinct difference when the conservative pundit said that “transgenderism must be eradicated from public life entirely.”)
“You have all that happening here in Nashville, and governor Bill Lee and Marsha Blackburn, our Senator, go and do interviews with Daily Wire regularly, and there’s no difference between what Daily Wire is spewing and what our government here in Tennessee is legislating. It’s one and the same, coming from some kind of think tank” looking for wedge issues. “So all of that makes you feel very despondent living here,” he admits.
“So Allison Russell texted me, and she had this vision to do a show at Bridgestone Arena and use her connections and to get the big names to come in. It’s really great to see the big names come together. But also for me, just getting to see artists like Adeem the Artist, Autumn Nicholas, Mya Byrne, Izzy Heltai — these are artists that are gonna be on this stage getting a big showcase, and these are trans and non-binary artists that live here in Tennessee and that this is directly impacting. Because all of these bills are directly going after trans people.”
Russell was on an Americana music cruise when several bills were being passed all at once. “A lot of us from the Nashville intersectional community — queer and Black and all the rest — were on this boat festival thing called Cayamo when our Tennessee legislature started pushing through SB1, HB1, SB3 and HB9. On Feb. 15 there was a march on the legislature called Have a Heart, Tennessee, that Inclusion Tennessee, Tennessee Equality Project, the Tennessee Pride Chamber and Human Rights Campaign organized together. But my phone had been off for a week, and it blew up with all of these messages and friends saying, ‘Are you guys safe?’ and ‘I bet you wanna come back to Canada now.’” (Russell is a Toronto native.) “So I began to catch up on what had been happening in our legislature, that the gloves were off on this sort of.., well, not just ‘sort of’… outright fascist agenda,” she says.
“I couldn’t sleep for two days because I just kept thinking, this is how it happens,” Russell continues. “You know, my daughter Ida is 9 now; she’s in the third grade. She goes to our community school here in Nashville. She feels in danger every day — not from drag-queen story time or her trans friends, but from the real threat of being shot to death at school, you know? She has nightmares that she wakes up from nightly. But not only are our legislators not addressing that, they’re actively adding to the possibility of death by violence for our children by removing the requirement for a permit to carry a gun. You don’t need to have a background check. They won’t even ban assault rifles, but they want to ban drag queen story time.
“I don’t believe for one second that any of those lawmakers actually thinks it’s about protecting children,” says Russell. “It’s the fascist playbook of target the most vulnerable community, rile up vigilante anger and violence and sentiment around that, and use that to propel yourself to continue grasping at power that doesn’t represent all of your constituents and of your state. It’s gradually dividing by degrees— eerily similar to the earliest days of when Hitler’s third reich Nazi party was lawfully elected right in in Germany, and the first thing they did, even before they started the real concentrated attacks of ghettoizing Jewish people, they attacked the LGBTQ+ community and specifically the trans community.
“It’s no coincidence that these same legislators that are proposing these bills are also saying things like we need to bring back hanging from a tree, and are also saying things like women who have abortions should be given the death penalty. These are all part of rhetoric to disenfranchise massive portions of our population and and essentially install a totalitarianism, authoritarian kind of a government, which is the antithesis of the small government that they claim to be.
“And so it just hit me so hard that I couldn’t unsee it — I couldn’t sleep for two days. I just started reaching out to our sort of all-Americana island of misfits, as Brandi (Carlile) likes to call us.” As a board member of the Americana Music Association, Russell started reaching out to members of that musical community, as well as Tracy Gershon, one of the co-founders of the women-elevating Change the Conversation, as well as the Carlile-cofounded Looking Out Foundation, which helped with organizing (despite Brandi being unable to attend) and committed to matching donations up to $100,000. Live Nation’s Ali Harnell, whom Russell considers a mentor, was another key force in making the Bridgestone benefit come together in a week and a half of planning before tickets went on sale.
Beneficiaries of proceeds include the Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee, Out Memphis and the Tennessee Pride Chamber.
Russell points to something she picked up from Cidny Bullens, the singer-songwriter who had a celebrated career as a male singer-songwriters in the 1970s, before transitioning. “Cidny is is an elder statesperson for the trans community, the LGBTQ community, and a Nashville treasure, and he said it best: ‘It’s legislative terrorism.’ And it’s trying to make everybody feel afraid. We are losing people — Hunter Kelly is leaving this town. He has been such an incredible advocate in not just the LGBTQ community, but just for country music that is fighting bigotry, and for anyone who loves art. He’s been this treasure in our community, and he’s leaving because of the toll of the constant hostility that is just too much. It’s heartbreaking that people are having to leave a place that they love because they don’t feel safe here. That’s happening in real time to my friends. And I felt that same fight-or-flight, but I realized that I feel really strongly that we need to stand our ground here and link our arms and say, ‘No, no further — we’re not going to be dragged any further back into our dystopian past.”
Russell continues, “There’s also the economic privilege of those of us who could flee if we wanted to, you know? Not everybody can.” She adds, “Of course I’m gonna be the Rainbow Coalition’s advocate and say: Move here! We need to flip this state with as many people as we can. If people need to go for self-preservation, for preservation of their life and mental well-being, I understand that. But I also encourage people not to flee who feel that they can stay and to encourage people to come, because these folks are running scared and that’s why they’re doing this kind of absolutely maniacal, fascist lawmaking right now. They’re not protecting kids. They’re just trying to colonize and criminalize and find more and more nefarious ways to hold onto power with fewer and fewer of the people actually voting. We know what that’s called. It’s not democracy.”
Kelly takes the opposite view and making plans to leave, because he just can’t take it anymore, after years of justifying the politics of Tennessee for himself and others, and wondering where the rest of the would-be allies are. “I would say at this point the LGBTQ community is looking for the businesses that sponsor us at Nashville Pride to speak up. I think there is, from what I’m understanding, a surprise and a shock that all this is actually happening so quickly. They don’t know how to react. But I can honestly say at this point, if a queer person were asking me if they should move here right now, I would say no.”
One thing they agree on is that this legislation is likely to keep the rest of the entertainment world from wanting to do business in Tennessee, at a time when the stage has been eager to draw in more film and TV production as well as act as a production center for all kinds of music, not just country.
“Wherever you find great creativity and originality, you’re gonna find the queer community,” says Kelly. “And so just for the creative survival of Nashville as a hub for music and entertainment and art, if you make it a place where the LGBTQ people can’t go, then it’s really just choking what is the major driver of tourism and the economic engine of the state, which is Nashville” — a largely liberal oasis in a deep-red state — “and which is music.”
Says Russell, “A great deal of businesses” — in entertainment and otherwise — “have come here due to the preferential taxation for corporations. And those businesses have plenty of people who are in the community that this legislature is now targeting. So (lawmakers) are really cutting off its nose to spite its own face. You say that you care about business and the economy, but for Tennessee to thrive, attacking pride hurts the Tennessee economy. Stopping drag shows — that’s part of why Tennessee has the claim to fame of being NashVegas; it’s why every bachelorette party shows up here! That’s directly from the drag community. That’s directly from the queer community and the joyful camp of it that people love and come here for. It is so fascinating to me that on the one hand they’re saying they’re prioritizing business and, on the other, they’re making it impossible for any business with sense to want to come here to set up shop.”
But Russell continues to have faith in “the transformative transcendent power of art. You know, that’s what art can do, that politics can’t, that nothing else can — it can just reach across those perceived or pernicious and purposefully constructed divides to just hit you in the heart where you can no longer believe that kind of ridiculously inflammatory, defamatory rhetoric.”
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