NASHVILLE — Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter Allison Russell had just returned home to Nashville earlier this month from a long stretch of touring when she saw the news: Gov. Bill Lee (R) signed multiple pieces of legislation that would make Tennessee the first state to criminalize drag shows, restricting performances in public places under possible punishment of prison — as well as follow other states on banning gender-affirming health care and medical treatment for transgender youth.
Russell is one of many musicians in town who were horrified by these new laws (which go into effect April 1 and July 1, respectively) that are framed by supporters as measures to protect children and slammed by critics as maliciously targeting the LGBTQ community.
“I’m a queer Black mom living in Nashville, and I’m a survivor of a lot of childhood abuse. … When I hear our elected officials making horrific, defamatory, inflammatory statements equating people who are trans or people who perform drag as some sort of child abuse or child grooming, I take it very, very personally,” Russell said. She has a 9-year-old daughter who has been learning about the Holocaust, and to Russell, it’s all intertwined.
“So often when we talk about atrocities of the past, we like to say, ‘How could this happen?’ It hit me so forcefully: This is exactly how it happened — it happened by degrees,” she said. “If we don’t start making a concerted effort to form coalitions that care about equality that are pushing against bigotry and really making noise about it, we are going to be part of ‘How did it happen?’ while a bunch of great people stood by and didn’t say anything.”
This led to Russell taking the lead in creating Love Rising, a nearly four-hour benefit concert at Bridgestone Arena on Monday night featuring performances from about 20 singer-songwriters and appearances from almost as many drag queens, with proceeds going to Tennessee LGBTQ organizations.
“I love this crazy state. I love it. I love it hard, but I am angry at it. I don’t know if it’s gonna change. But what if? What if?” said Ruby Amanfu, who joined Russell and transgender soul artist Shea Diamond to sing “A Beautiful Noise,” a ballad she co-wrote for Alicia Keys and Brandi Carlile. “Sometimes, your vote is your voice.”
The lineup was mainly a mix of country, Americana, folk and rock singers. The majority of the mainstream country music community, frequently driven by fear of alienating conservative fans, hasn’t gone anywhere near this topic. But country star Maren Morris showed up for a solo performance as the closing act, introduced by the night’s emcee and former “RuPaul’s Drag Race” contestant Asia O’Hara.
O’Hara, without using names, brought up the incident last fall in which country star Jason Aldean’s wife, the influencer Brittany Aldean, posted an Instagram caption widely criticized as transphobic. After Morris fired back at Aldean and called her “Insurrection Barbie,” Aldean went on Fox News with Tucker Carlson, who dubbed Morris a “lunatic.” Morris launched a line of T-shirts that read “Lunatic Country Music Person,” with sales going to organizations that support transgender people.
Some of those shirts were spotted in the crowd as Morris took the stage, where she noted that she brought her toddler son to soundcheck earlier and he “freaked out” with excitement when she brought him to the dressing room where the drag queens were getting ready.
“It’s just magic what drag queens do … the smell of hair spray and wig glue, there’s glitter, everyone’s in a good mood, they’re so excited to be here tonight for this show, it’s just a room of love,” Morris said. She decided to perform her Grammy-nominated song “Better Than We Found It,” which she wrote about hoping to leave the world “a little bit better than the one we’re in right now” for future generations.
“Yes, I introduced my son to some drag queens today,” Morris added. “So Tennessee: F---ing arrest me.”
Ever since singer-songwriter Mya Byrne transitioned about a decade ago, she has worked hard to platform her music and helps other artists in her community as they try to build careers. “So many trans folks just have felt there isn’t a place for them in country and Americana,” she said in an interview.
Byrne was thrilled to receive a text from Russell asking whether she could be part of the concert. One of the things she wanted to communicate during her time onstage was that “it’s easy to love trans people.”
“It doesn’t take a lot of energy to do that — you just have to love,” Byrne said. “In the face of all of this madness, we can come together as people and celebrate each other not despite, but for, our differences.”
Monday night, on the biggest stage she has ever played, Byrne sang beside her partner, Swan Real, also a transgender woman. They crooned “It Don’t Fade,” about how even in dark times, sunshine still exists. At the end, they held each other and kissed as the audience applauded wildly. “Protect trans love, everyone!” Real called out.
Byrne was introduced by musician Cidny Bullens, who told the crowd that he has recorded with Rod Stewart, performed with Bob Dylan, and released his own albums — and all of that was when he was “Cindy Bullens, my former self.”
“My friends and colleagues here in Nashville supported me all through my transition and want me to thrive, still, now. But the state of Tennessee does not support me, or any other transgender, nonbinary or person in our wider LGBTQIA+ community,” Bullens said, to loud boos from the audience. He brought up a recent bill passed in the Tennessee House of Representatives that would give county clerks the right to refuse to solemnize marriages they don’t personally believe in. “They targeted humanity. They targeted love. This can’t stand, because we won’t let it.”
More artists shared their personal backstories, including Izzy Heltai, a folk singer who came out as transgender as a teenager and lived in Massachusetts before moving to Nashville. “There’s laws specific to denying trans youth of health care that are being passed. That means that some kids won’t get what they need to feel okay, and I was one of those kids,” he said before playing “All of This Beauty” on guitar. “And I know if I lived in a state like this and was denied what I needed to be okay to be here, I definitely wouldn’t be here.”
Adeem the Artist, who identifies as pansexual and nonbinary, captured the mixed emotions that multiple singers expressed, calling the night “a weird juxtaposition of jubilance and fear.”
“Fear for my child, fear for my career, my livelihood, my safety,” Adeem continued. “I live in East Tennessee in a state that wants to criminalize my very identity. So I’m going to sing an unrequited love song, and tonight, I’m going to sing it to the mountains of this beautiful state and all the ways it wants to harm me.”
Fans arrived to the concert wearing rainbow flags and shirts that read “Love is Love” and “Don’t Mess With Trans Kids” and, in the case of one pair of friends, “Our Governor Is a Drag.”
Others agreed they wanted to support the cause and emphasize that the new laws do not represent the views of the whole state.
“We’re here to celebrate diversity and the fact that, despite the legislation being passed, Nashville is a welcoming city and y’all means all,” said Beth Joslin Roth, who attended the show with her daughter, Avery; they both wore sparkly rainbow tiaras. “It’s scary for the young trans people who are being impacted by the legislation, and it’s really just harmful to the entire LGBTQ community.”
“I haven’t been in Nashville very long, but with all of the laws, I think it was really disheartening to see in my new home,” said Gabby Raymond. “But very heartening to see everyone rage just a little bit, all together, in unison, and harmony.”
Attendees raved about the lineup, particularly the presence of rock legend Sheryl Crow, who performed “Every Day is Winding Road” and “Hard to Make a Stand,” as well as Americana stars Jason Isbell, Yola and Brittany Howard. Isbell pitched in to help with the event, adding it was “embarrassing” to see the new laws that are “a concerted effort to push anyone who is different to the margins.”
In an interview, Isbell — well-known for being outspoken about political and social issues — didn’t seem shocked that more country stars didn’t participate in the show.
“If all you care about is making money and selling as many records as possible, you’re not going to speak out about these kind of things,” he said. “For me, and I think a lot of similar-minded artists on this bill, there’s more important things than money and record sales and streaming sales. … For us to be happy and fulfilled in our work, we have to use art for something bigger.”
Isbell performed his song “Cover Me Up” accompanied by his wife, musician Amanda Shires. “That’s a love song. Everybody deserves that love,” he said. Shires also sang “Crowded Table” with Morris, her fellow member of the supergroup the Highwomen, as well as Russell and Joy Oladokun. Hayley Williams of Paramore sang a cover of Deana Carter’s “Did I Shave My Legs for This?” alongside a drag queen. The concert wrapped up with group singalongs of “I’m Every Woman” and “We Are Family,” led by Yola and Howard.
One goal of the event was to remind legislators of how many millions of dollars LGBTQ business owners pour into the state, and how it could affect the economy if they’re pushed out. “It’s a living example, one after another, of artists who live here who are contributing to the creativity and, frankly, the income of this community in Tennessee,” said Apple Music’s “Proud Radio” host Hunter Kelly, one of the event’s organizers, who is hosting a follow-up event Tuesday night at the local City Winery. Russell also hoped the show could dispel misinformation about drag and the transgender community. And she hoped that people would be comforted by joining together — especially because an event like this, with drag queens and children in attendance, will technically be against the law in a little more than a week.
“Music is transformative. Concerts are transformative,” she said. “We were doing this against the clock because we need to do the show before it becomes illegal — so people understand why it’s wrong that it becomes illegal.”