He has brought a band, and he’s going to sing. The book being celebrated is “Songs of America,” by Meacham and McGraw, and it’s about American history in songs, or American songs in history, or songs and history in America.
Even for a book about music, this concept of a book tour as music show is pretty unusual. Meacham tells me in an interview that he and McGraw have an explicit goal for this project. “How do we find a way to talk to each other as opposed to talking past each other? How do we get beyond the ol’ crossfire, red versus blue, right versus left?”
As an answer to that question, a singalong of songs celebrating the inherent greatness of America — mixed with some history lessons! — sounds insufficient. It sounds corny and manipulative and like the 5,000th thing that is not going to unite Americans of all colors and creeds. Meacham really does not want this event to be that. “Can music help us?” he wonders. “Not in a naive way, a Panglossian way, not in a sentimental way — can it put people in a place where they realize we’ve been through a lot before and yet we’ve created a country where people still want to come here?”
Inside the Anthem, it’s a mostly business-casual crowd, with outliers in off-the-shoulder jumpsuits. At least one person has smuggled a can of Miller Lite past the Anthem’s bag-searching security guards — which probably isn’t a concern at most Meacham events. Then again, the whole idea that there are types of Americans, book-event people and country-music people, goes against what Meacham and McGraw are trying to make happen here.
Both men are big deals and political sore thumbs in their separate worlds. One is a country music star who’s supported the Democratic Party, the other is an elite journalist who spoke at the funerals of George H.W. and Barbara Bush. Also, they’re neighbors in Nashville. At a Christmas party last year, McGraw asked Meacham if he’d ever considered tracing political attitudes in America’s history with music, and then Meacham asked McGraw the same thing. The project came together quickly.
The lights go down and there’s an audio montage of famous Americans talking about America, with a projection of different flags from the nation’s history, including two that say “don’t tread on me.” The onstage band has a fife player. Our hosts come out, and McGraw pretends all the vehement cheers are for Meacham. Nashville gets a round of applause, and everyone laughs at Meacham’s George W. Bush impression. Meacham and McGraw rib each other in between songs. McGraw repeatedly, self-deprecatingly mentions his Tom Ford suit. They never actually read from the book, but the historian and the singer play to their strengths, deploying two powerful elements of persuasion: additional information and emotion.
“We’re very aware that we’re two Southern white guys up here,” says McGraw. And one of the Southern white guys is about to sing “Dixie.” But they introduce the song as written by a man from Ohio, who wrote it for performers in a New York minstrel show, in which a white man pretending to be a former slave sings nostalgically for his life in the South. It is two levels removed from the earnest paean to Southern life we hear today. McGraw presents it in an arrangement by Mickey Newbury, adopted by Elvis: mixed in with the “Glory! Hallelujah!” chorus of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Next to “Dixie” like this, it’s a jarring reminder that our country has a battle hymn.
The entire event unfolds that way, with disparate elements of America somehow fused together by the music. An R&B-style “Over There.” The famous first two twangs over drums of Buffalo Springfield’s “For What It’s Worth,” best known for being legally required on the soundtrack to every movie set in the ’60s and for nobody knowing it by its title. (It’s the one that goes: “Stop, children, what’s that sound?”) Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” answers it — just as in real life, where the song was a response to hippies and their music.
Something extraordinary happens during Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” The crowd sings the stirring, irresistible, howling chorus, corny and manipulative and earnest as it is. The band cuts off abruptly, and McGraw is finished, but voices at the back urge him to “KEEP GOING!” Meacham and McGraw laugh a little to each other (though they don’t relent despite the applause). They’d succeeded somehow in taking different elements of history and America, unmatched as they are, and putting them together in a new kind of happening. Weirdly, improbably, with thought and effort, the whole thing synthesizes and works. Ain’t that America.
Rachel Manteuffel is a Washington Post editorial aide.