When politicians throw campaign trail concerts, they often follow a set formula: Import a big star, such as Katy Perry or Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, both of whom hit the stump for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign. Turn out people who might not come to a more conventional rally. Register them to vote or get their contact information, and hope they can be persuaded to turn out on Election Day.
But on Friday, March 24, in Falls Church, Tom Perriello is throwing the second of a series of concerts in support of his campaign for the Democratic nomination for Virginia’s governorship. (Perriello and I overlapped at the Center for American Progress, where I previously ran the culture and sports sections of ThinkProgress.) The lineup, which includes Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, the D.C.-based Nag Champa Art Ensemble and a bluegrass ensemble founded specifically to support Perriello’s run, is hyper-local, eclectic and a reflection of Perriello’s personal experiences. And rather than trying to make policy details palatable by wrapping them up in celebrity, Perriello sees the concerts as an expression of his ideas about Virginia’s evolving identity and economy.
President Trump’s proposal to eliminate the National Endowment for the Arts and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting has brought renewed attention to the work both of those organizations do to support rural access to the arts.
But rather than push back against Trump’s agenda by suggesting Virginia is in need of cultural enrichment from outside, Perriello and his staff hope to draw attention to the state’s cultural legacy, which ranges from country star Patsy Cline to Queen of Jazz Ella Fitzgerald, and from bluegrass banjo player Ralph Stanley to super-producer Pharrell Williams and rapper Missy Elliott, both of whom were born in the state’s Hampton Roads region. And Perriello wants to show residents of the region’s bigger cities that they have a lot to gain from visiting smaller towns in Virginia that have their own established venues and are booking terrific, if not hugely famous, local artists.
“I feel like the music is already part of a lot of the small towns we go to, and it’s about trying to connect those artists to population centers that can be more supportive. If you go down to Floyd, at the Country Store, you’ve got great musicians performing. We want that to be something folks in medium-size cities might [see as] a destination to go to,” Perriello told me. “It can be part of an economic development strategy. We’ve seen some success with this with craft breweries and distilleries in central Virginia, and that’s what we want to do: acknowledge that in many cases there is vibrant music and culture in these places and make sure we’re shining a light on it.”
The concert series, Perriello says, is also “about the question of what it means to be Virginian, and in my lifetime it’s become a much more diverse state.” He sees that diversity reflected in art and music. Showcasing artists from different musical traditions, and presenting them as all equally invested in Virginia’s future, is a way of suggesting that these changes are “something worth celebrating,” he says, rather than a source of problems.
This focus on Virginia bluegrass and musical cross-pollination goes beyond the concert series.
Perriello’s campaign has its own bluegrass band, the Perriello Pickers, which includes Brennan Gilmore, Perriello’s chief of staff and founder of the band Walker’s Run, on guitar; Nate Leath, who at 11 years old took first place in the bluegrass fiddle category at the 1995 Old Fiddler’s Convention in Galax, Va.; Will Lee, a third-generation musician whose grandfathers played ragtime piano and clawhammer banjo, on banjo; Jay Starling, the son of Seldom Scene founder John Starling, on dobro banjo; and Walker’s Run veterans Andy Thacker on mandolin and Zack Blatter on bass. They play an earnest official campaign anthem and have gone into the studio with Davina Jackson, a gospel singer who attended elementary school with Perriello, to record a new version of it.
Gilmore sees a difference between bringing local musicians on the campaign trail and importing star power in an effort to draw attention to a campaign.
“Music is an integral part of people’s lives, and I think it connects with them emotionally and on a deeper level than they might have from seeing someone on TV,” he says. “When you see a celebrity, there’s this moment of ‘Is this real?’ … But if we bring you the more everyday aspects of music that are resonating on a day-to-day basis with people, whether it’s a gospel group in church or the artists they see around the state, I think there is a different emotional reaction.”
For both Perriello and Gilmore, music was an important part of their work overseas.
Perriello met the members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars during his stint working as the special assistant to the international prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which pursued war criminals, including former Liberian president Charles Taylor. The members of the Refugee All Stars were displaced during Sierra Leone’s civil war; the band’s presence on stage on Friday is a direct reminder of Perriello’s work, rather than an attempt to gild him with a celebrity endorsement. And Gilmore brought together his experiences as a Foreign Service officer in Tunisia and his musical background when he founded Kantara, a band that he describes as an attempt to blend Appalachian and Wolof musical traditions.
For Reuben Koroma, one of the founding members of Sierra Leone’s Refugee All Stars, Friday’s concert, like so many others the group has played, is an opportunity to ask audiences to consider big issues without the tension that often surrounds political debate.
“Music is like a comforter,” he says. “It brings joy to people, and when someone is joyful, he or she is open to understanding something.”
Perriello believes that joy matters.
“We wouldn’t reject Katy Perry if she wants to come, but we have wanted to highlight and prioritize homegrown music and traditions,” Perriello says. “When we go out to some of the harder-hit parts of the state, including those that have been affected by the opioid epidemic and lost coal jobs, there’s still a lot of pride in these communities, and we want people to understand Virginia-made products as a source of pride.”
This piece originally misstated which instrument Ralph Stanley played. I regret the error.