Less than five days after Tennessee Governor Bill Lee signed the so-called anti-Drag bill into law, and made sure it would be effective before Pride Month activities, a group of Nashville artists including Brittany Howard, Hayley Williams and Jason Isbell announced a massive benefit concert pushing back on the ideals underlying the legislation.
This comes directly after the bill but also after a series of disturbing incidents including one in Cookeville where the behavior of authorities mirrors a dark trend.
It’s a among a series of moves that Love Rising organizer Allison Russell believes is meant to intimidate Tennesseans and in some cases, it’s already working. There have been reports of several prominent LGBTQ musicians moving away because of the growing hostility and one of Russell’s fellow events organizers, Hunter Kelly, announced this show would be his farewell to Nashville citing “the mental toll this takes over time.”
But Russell’s intention for the event is to encourage the creative community and other concerned citizens to stay and fight. She spoke with WNXP’s Jason Moon Wilkins from a cafe in New York in-between high profile appearances at other big benefits including the Tibet House concert.
Jason Moon Wilkins: So, you took this on not in a downtime for you then?
Allison Russell: No, it’s not a down time. You know, timing is never perfect. This is too important. And I care too much about resisting fascism in our state. It’s got to stop. If we just give up and leave, then it just spreads. We’re going to have to have this fight over and over again. These are the times we’re in. Unfortunately, reactionary fascism is on the rise globally. It’s not like it’s just in America or just in Tennessee. But Tennessee is in trouble. This is where I’m raising my child. So I have to fight for my community in the place I’ve chosen to live.
JMW: Jewly Hight (Nashville Public Radio Senior Music Writer) sent me a message saying that (you) are really the organizer of the thing. That it was your idea. And I just want to make sure that I’m correct in saying that.
AR: Yeah, I think it’s interesting. I think it was a sort of simultaneous. Jason Isbell had the same idea at the same time. And we were each reaching out to our circles and there’s overlap in our circles. David Macias (head of Thirty Tigers) is in it. He’s part of the diversity committee for the Americana Music Association that I’ve been part of for the last couple of years. And I had just been sending out to all the people I thought might be kindred spirits in wanting to do something. And the first folks that I reached out to were my DEI circle. Tressie McMillan Cottom is part of that. David Macias is part of that. Tracy Gershon. Ali Harnell. Brandi Carlile and her wife Catherine. I just sent these messages out and everybody was already feeling like ‘We have to do something.’ So I think in that sense, I was just the bridge to bring our circles closer together, to start working on it together. Brandi and Catherine had been talking to Hunter Kelly and I reached out to him and we were on the same page.
And so we all started thinking about what can we do? And thinking big. I had the idea of could we do a big concert at Bridgestone? Could we pull it off? Have enough big names? Of course, the first people I thought of were Tennessee people like Kacey Musgraves and Taylor Swift and Maren Morris. And not all of them were available. Maren immediately said yes. Hayley Williams immediately said yes. Hozier immediately said, yes. He’s been in town a lot, rehearsing with his band – a lot of his band is Tennessee based. And of course, Jason Isbell was right on the same page from the start. So, you know, it was this feverish (pace) because we have so little time. The show that we’re doing will be illegal as of April 1st. Literally illegal and that is so deeply wrong. And obviously, we’re going to fight all these bans and these discriminatory, amoral laws. But that’s going to take civil disobedience and there’s going to be lawyers that need to be paid. And friends in the health care pipeline, because healthcare has been cut off for an entire segment of our population.
We cannot sleepwalk through this. It’s very, very, very serious the ramifications of it. I don’t even know if some of the people who are supporting these bills fully understand the ramifications of what they’re signing up for here. I really don’t think they do. I don’t think if they understood this is how fascism starts. My daughter is nine years old. She’s in the third grade. We’ve been learning about the Second World War. And, you know, when Hitler’s party was voted into power in 1933, that was a legal election. They were legally voted in. They targeted the trans community and the LGBT community first before they moved on to the Jewish community. And we know where that ended. We know how bad it can get. We’re supposedly the land of the free. So where is the freedom in these laws that are being pushed through our legislature, you know?
JMW: Well, and obviously, you’ve been following it, as it went (through the legislature). And I wonder from your perspective, what do you think the goal of legislation like this really is?
AR: I think the goals are to manipulate and rile up a base that is misinformed and fearful. And I think their goal ultimately is to push more and more people that they don’t like the looks of out of Tennessee and just to show that it can be done. I think it’s a petri dish. I think once these laws pass in Tennessee, then all of the other states that are leaning that way are going to do the same. I mean, I think their goal is ultimately to overturn marriage equality as well at the federal level. I think they’re pushing for that. I mean, Clarence Thomas said it as soon as they overturned Roe v Wade. You have to hand it to the strategy of the right. They have been, for decades, stacking courts bit by bit. And it is a very, very, very serious attack on democracy and freedom. On basic human rights. It is not a little thing. It is not. And I find it deeply troubling that it is following so closely the pattern that we’ve seen within fascist regimes over the decades. Following very closely the pattern that the Nazi Party adhered to. I mean, that is not something to be proud of.
JMW: What has beenthe reaction from the music community around you? You’re in New York. Are you hearing about this outside of Tennessee?
AR: Oh, everybody’s horrified. Everybody’s talking about it. I mean, this is national and international news because it is not business as usual. It is a step into fascism that is remarkable, noticeable and is horrifying to outside observers. Absolutely horrified. You know, this latest bill that’s that passed the House, that hasn’t been signed yet, but saying that county clerks can refuse a marriage license based on an interfaith, intersex or interracial relationship. You know, I’m a black mom and in a so-called interracial relationship. So, I take these things very personally. I’m a survivor of severe childhood sexual abuse, and my abuser was a white Christian man from a sundown town in America. The people that saved me were my queer community. The place where I found safe spaces, where I could be myself and not be abused were within the queer community. Not that I’m a drag artist, but many of my closest people are drag artists. I had a very loving partner early on who was trans who helped me survive my horrible early start. And so, I take it very, very personally when this inflammatory rhetoric is being used to equate anyone within the trans or drag communities as somehow being child abusers. I take a deep personal offense to that, and it is such a purposeful sleight of hand. Look away whilst we get civil liberties.
JMW: And do you feel that that that that is part of the strategy, distraction?
AR: Oh yeah. And constant outrage so that it just exhausts people. You know, one thing after the other and we don’t know what to say. And the main thing I mean, RuPaul said it. Vote these people out of office. We have to vote. Anyone who is espousing and promoting discriminatory laws with inflammatory fascist rhetoric has no business spending public funds, and representing the people of this country. It’s the most anti-American thing I can think of. One of the things that we are doing at the concert is a voter registration drive. (Hopefully) we can sell out this concert. And that hopefully sends a message to people like Governor Bill Lee and the legislators backing these laws that you are also alienating business owners. They might not give a toss about our queer community, but they should care about the queer community’s businesses and dollars and what that brings to Tennessee. If they actually care about Tennesseans and the prosperity of Tennesseans, they should care about that. We are also Tennessee.
JMW: Immediately when I saw this, I wondered, okay, is this part of a trial balloon because now they feel like the Supreme Court is stacked in their favor?
AR: That’s what I think it is.
JMW: Because, as you know, there’s, what, 15 or 20 different bills like this across the U.S. trying to get passed? That’s a nationally concerted effort that is more than just on the ground here in Tennessee.
AR: Exactly. Exactly. And it’s part of their greater 2024 strategy. That’s clear to me. They think this is going to get them the presidency in 2024. And they are trying to essentially radicalize the right even more. This is really scary. You know, that’s fascist territory. That’s what that is. This is not ‘Oh, both sides, just consider everyone’s opinion.’ It’s not an opinion when you are gutting human rights. You’re saying that the government can tell you how to dress. How is that any different than the Sharia law that is killing women in Iran right now? How is that any different? The government shouldn’t be the arbiter of what is prurient or not. Or what is appropriate or not in the form of anyone’s dress. We already have public nudity laws. There is no need for anything further. It serves no purpose other than to demonize, scapegoat and caricature an entire community. And dehumanize our community as well.
JMW: So you expressed that staying and fighting is important. Have you heard from other folks who, they see this, they see the rise of it, and, like you said, the kind of fatigue and exhaustion of some of these things, and they feel like it has successfully worn them down and they want to move?
AR: I get it. A lot of people are fleeing. And I understand. Particularly I have friends whose child is a trans child and they just need to be somewhere where they can keep their kid safe and get their kids the health care that they need. And so I understand why they’re leaving. And that’s why it’s even more important for those of us who can stay and fight and hold out for us to (do so). Otherwise, what is the alternative? To flee and leave until we’re in a smaller and smaller territory where human rights are respected? And meanwhile, we’re abandoning anyone who can’t afford to leave. There’s a socioeconomic privilege in being able to get up and go. Being able to kind of, ‘Oh, this is getting uncomfortable.’ I can go somewhere better and nicer.
And Tennessee, Nashville, there’s something very deep to me about even the name Music City. That comes from the Fisk Jubilee Singers being the first musical export ever out of America. The first supergroup. And breaking through colonial thinking to the point where even Queen Victoria was in tears, listening to them sing and saying, ‘Wherever you come from must be a city of music.’ And then (Nashville) becomes Music City. There’s such a deep history of integration efforts, to reduce the harm of bigotry that are at the heart of Tennessee as well. They don’t get to have it. They don’t get to take it. They just don’t. There’s too many of us.
They’ve been to try to attract and they’re successfully attracting businesses based on tax exemptions. And you’re right, these businesses are international affairs with people of all kinds of identities, including queer identities. And it does not make any sense at all to be espousing laws that alienate, discriminate, criminalize people who have done nothing wrong and who are enriching our state. So, you’ve got to fight it. And again, I think that if it if it goes unchecked here, then that just galvanizes all the other states ready to follow suit. There has to be some resistance. It’s important to be part of the resistance. I often think about people like my daughter learning about World War Two and people even still wonder how could this have happened? This is how this is how it happens. Gradually, by degrees. This is the beginning of it. This is what it looks like in the beginning. We don’t want to see what it looks like at the end. So we have to resist.
JMW: In terms of the concert,you pulled off something dramatic.
AR: It’s a miracle. It’s actually a miracle what happened. And that is a testament to the fact that everybody was feeling so upset and frustrated and needed to find a way to do something positive in this time, to resist this insidious bigotry eating away at the spirit of our state. So that’s why this miracle has come about, because there were so many people that just said, ‘Yes, I’m going to come and do this.’ And the hardest part was (the venues). Because all of the venues are receiving pressure. So we had to pivot and soften our language and lean more into the benefit rather than the protest. There was pressure from their boards to pull the show. I feel like I’ve learned a lot. It’s been a painful learning process over the last week, but also hopeful in that there is such a beautiful, expansive coalition of people that were just needing somewhere to focus their efforts. And bringing this concert together has been incredible. Of course, all of the organizations that we’re benefiting are doing unbelievable grassroots work to reduce harm in our community, to build bridges, to lobby, to try.
So much of this fearmongering is only possible because there are people who don’t even know that they already know someone in the queer community. Especially in these smaller towns where people feel that they have to be closeted because the atmosphere is so negative. They already know and love someone who’s a drag artist. They already know and love someone who is trans. They already know and love someone who is part of the queer community. And this is the thing that music can do. I feel that when people come together in joyful assembly and feel things together and actually have their biochemistry shifted together, there’s this very deep healing, circle work, you know? And that is transformative for people. With the show that we’re going to put on, you can’t come to that show and leave it thinking these people need to be arrested. You just won’t feel that way. You’ll feel like this was beautiful and joyful. And what on earth what is the problem? Why is this a problem? How could this show become illegal in a week and a half?
JMW: We’ve seen the artist names put out there. Do you have anything else you can add for what people can expect of the show?
AR: There are going to be some wonderful drag queens and kings joining us. There will be some special guests. There will be many one-time-only collaborations that never been done before. It’s going to be very joyful. It’s going to be run sort of similar to an award show where there are a couple songs from each artist and special collaborations. It’s really exciting what’s coming together and what an open spirit everyone is entering into this with. It’s also connecting different communities and different people within the arts world who maybe hadn’t met before. And that to me is so joyful because I think there’s some exponential goodness that comes out of that as well from people being in creative community together and creative problem solving together. And I’m just really, really, really excited about it. And I know that this is just the beginning. It’s not like this is going to solve all the issues in our state, but it’s a really good start. To gather positivity, to gather funds, to share information, to dispel misinformation and purposeful, malignant, malicious disinformation. And to get people seeing each other and working together.
JMW: And when you say, like an award show, you have a backing band?
AR: Yes. Yes. So the Rainbow Coalition Band will be there. Some of the artists are bringing some of their own people and there’ll be an integration of their musicians and our Rainbow Coalition band. It’s an incredible band. Meg McCormick is the music director. Larissa Maestro and Sista Strings (are part of it). Ryan Medora on the bass, Mandy Fer on guitars, Meg Coleman on drums. Elizabeth Pupo Walker on percussion, Elenna Canlas on keys. (Devon Gilfillian and Joshua Blaylock were later added). We have just an incredible band and more people that are raising their hands to come in and help out. And it really makes me feel proud of our Nashville arts community just how immediately on board everybody has been and continues to be. So it really gives me a lot of hope. And so much of these kind of laws are meant to make people feel fearful and to closet people. And we just have to resist that at every turn, including once the laws take effect. Continuing to do these shows. Civil disobedience is going to be the name of the game. That’s the next step.