‘Love Rising': Country and Americana Stars Shine at LGBTQ Benefit Concert
Stars from country, Americana and beyond gathered at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena Monday night for Love Rising, a benefit concert for LGBTQ organizations in Tennessee. The event, a response to hateful rhetoric and a series of anti-LGBTQ laws passed in Tennessee and across the country over the last few months, was a nearly four-hour affair that showcased a stunning abundance of perspectives and musical styles.
Holding the night together were Allison Russell and the Rainbow Coalition band, a diverse group made up of Elenna Canlas on keyboard, Ryan Madora on bass, Chauntee and Monique Ross on strings, Larissa Maestro on cello, Megan Coleman on drums, Elizabeth Pupo-Walker on percussion, and Mandy Fer and musical director Meg McCormick on guitar. Russell was ebullient throughout, shifting effortlessly from supporting the band on banjo and clarinet, contributing harmony vocals and delivering rousing performances of her own.
Asia O'Hara of RuPaul's Drag Race fame served as master of ceremonies, delivering concise protest statements and frequently fawning over stars like Sheryl Crow. Drag queens were a near-constant presence onstage and otherwise, with the cast of RuPaul's Drag Race Live! and several former RuPaul's Drag Race cast members offering pre-recorded messages of support along with celebrities like Frankie Grande and Sara Ramirez.
Brandi Carlile also appeared in a heartfelt video message with her wife, Catherine Shepherd, and their two children. Carlile's Looking Out Foundation has pledged to double any donations made up to $100,000.
First to take the stage was Nashville pop singer Jake Wesley Rogers, who emerged in a sequined suit and oversized yellow glasses to deliver a high-energy rendition of his self-love anthem "Pluto."
Rogers was followed by Adeem the Artist, who put it best when they described the night's energy as "a weird juxtaposition of jubilance and fear." Adeem gave an emotive performance of "For Judas," a queer story song that they dedicated to "the mountains of this state and all the ways it wants to harm me."
Adeem wasn't the only one to express ambivalence about being in Tennessee. Mya Byrne, who took the stage with her partner, Swan Real, after a moving introduction from singer-songwriter and fellow trans trailblazer Cidny Bullens, spoke affectingly about her love for Tennessee despite its increasingly hostile politics.
Byrne encouraged audience members to show up to statehouses and make their dismay about the current situation known before launching into "It Don't Fade," a twangy ode to the transformative power of trans joy. After sharing verses on the next song, the tender "Easy to Love," Byrne and Real shared an onstage kiss that was perhaps the night's most evocative display of queer resistance.
Trans resistance was otherwise visible in the performance of Izzy Heltai, who gave a stirring rendition of his song "All of This Beauty." First, however, Heltai offered a few words on the bans on gender-affirming care for trans minors that have become law in Tennessee and elsewhere.
"I was one of those kids, and I know if I lived in a state like this and was denied what I needed… I definitely wouldn't be here," Heltai said.
Later, singer-songwriter and trans activist Shea Diamond delivered a poignant spoken-word piece about the oppression of trans youth.
"I'm that trans child that was called everything except for a child of God," Diamond intoned as the band riffed behind her. Drawing from her own experiences of social rejection, Diamond's performance of "I Am Her" dovetailed with earlier comments from Byrne about who the real "outlaws" in Nashville are. (Hint: not straight, cis white men.) Like Byrne, Diamond struck a balance between recognizing the very real dangers for trans people in Tennessee and asserting the protective powers of queer love.
The focus on love provided connective tissue between many of the night's different performances. "Everybody deserves that love," Jason Isbell remarked after singing the love song "Cover Me Up" as his wife and collaborator Amanda Shires played fiddle and sang harmony. For his part, Fancy Hagood moved the crowd with "Don't Blink," a soulful ode to finding domestic bliss in queer partnership. Throughout the event, audience members and livestream viewers were prompted to make donations by texting "LOVE" to 99126.
If "love" was the most-used word of the night, a close second was "vote." Reminders of the importance of voting came early and often, as performers and celebrity guests alike encouraged audience members to make their voices heard. At one point, RuPaul himself filled the onstage screens as organizers played an Instagram video that ended with the memorable words: "A social media post has never been as powerful as a registered vote."
It's a familiar refrain that has the potential to ring hollow at a time when gerrymandering and voter suppression — as well as the ever-present specter of "minority rule" — seem to be undermining the basic principles of democracy. Most alert to this alert to this fact was Ruby Amanfu, who was careful in her own speech to point out that faithfully voting has not always paid dividends for marginalized people in Nashville and otherwise.
"I voted. What did it do?" she said, doubtless speaking to the frustrations of many in the progressive-leaning crowd. She then explained that only 38.57% of Tennessee voters went to the polls in the 2022 midterms, a figure that she chooses to interpret as hopeful. "I'm not saying it's gonna change [if more people go out and vote], but what if?" she said.
Amanfu then joined Russell and Diamond for a rousing cover of Carlile and Alicia Keys' "A Beautiful Noise," which Amanfu co-wrote. Their performance underscored what was evident from the start: Many of the night's biggest moments belonged to Black performers.
Early in the show, Black Opry member Autumn Nicholas provided a shattering performance of their song "On a Sunday," the night's most powerful evocation of religious trauma. Another clear highlight was Brittany Howard's euphoric performance of her song "Stay High," which finds radical joy in everyday struggle.
Intersectionality was a guiding principle throughout the evening, with many straight, cis performers either sharing the stage with or ceding the spotlight to their queer counterparts. Highwomen members Maren Morris and Shires invited Russell and scene-stealer Joy Oladokun — as well as no fewer than 15 drag performers — to join in on singing "Crowded Table," an anthem to inclusivity that has rarely felt so intersectional.
For her part, Paramore singer Hayley Williams shared the stage with queer Nashville singer-songwriter Becca Mancari and her friend Brian O'Connor, who emerged in drag to sing harmony on a lively cover of Deana Carter's "Did I Shave My Legs For This?" Providing the most inspired song choice of the night, Williams fittingly dedicated the song to drag queens.
For all the night's excess of talent, there was one glaring absence: Mainstream country music. Morris was the sole representative of Nashville's commercial mainstream, with most of the night's performers coming from the Americana scene or further on the genre's fringes. (Brothers Osborne were originally slated to perform but backed out due to John Osborne's wife, Lucie Silvas, going into early labor.) It was a startling reflection of country music's reticence to engage with LGBTQ issues, as even formerly outspoken allies like Miranda Lambert and Dolly Parton have remained silent in the face of escalating attacks on the LGBTQ community in their home state.
The night ended with Yola, Howard and Amanfu — who were joined by a parade of drag queens and other members of the Love Rising cast — leading the crowd in spirited sing-alongs of Chaka Khan's "I'm Every Woman" and Sister Sledge's "We Are Family." Both songs spoke perfectly to the radical message of the night's coalescing of talents and identities, with the latter adopting a particular poignancy given the setting.
The word "family" gets thrown around a lot in the Nashville music world — particularly in reference to country music's highly exclusive upper echelon — and Monday night offered a rare vision of what a more inclusive vision of that family might look like.