Radical joy and consistent action were the messages at Nashville’s Love Rising benefit concert on Monday, an event that drew supporters to the city’s downtown Bridgestone Arena. Hosted by Drag Race alumna Asia O’Hara and featuring performances by Hayley Williams, Hozier, Sheryl Crow, Jason Isbell, Maren Morris, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, and Nashville’s drag artists — among many others — the concert raised money for four Tennessee organizations working to fight the state government’s ongoing legislative attacks against the LGBTQ+ community.
It’s been a rough few months here and the outlook continues to be grim. The state’s Republican governor, Bill Lee, signed the infamous drag bill on the same day he signed legislation denying healthcare to trans teens, putting supportive parents in the position of having to decide if they should move or ask their children to de-transition. There are more on the way, including bills that target the personhood of trans adults and one that makes drag queens register as “adult cabaret” performers in order to work.
It was the kind of environment where expressions of joy can serve as a gesture of resistance. And that was a recurring theme of Love Rising, whether it was Jason Isbell covering Wet Willie’s “Keep on Smilin’,” Jake Wesley Rogers’ spirit-raising “Pluto,” or Brittany Howard sashaying through “Stay High” in a gorgeous caftan. Mya Byrne played a lively “It Don’t Fade” that segued into “Easy to Love” that segued into a sweet smooch with her partner and collaborator, Swan Real.
“We have to vote, but we also have to show up. We will not be put in cages again!” said Byrne, who just released the fiery protest song “Burn This Statehouse Down” featuring Paisley Fields in response to Governor Lee’s policies.
Even Sheryl Crow, slotted near the beginning of the four-hour concert, touched on the need to keep pushing things forward in her rendition of “Every Day Is a Winding Road.” “I’m so happy that you are here. This is a statement about what kind of world we want to live in when we all live our truth,” she told the crowd.
One of the night’s most joyful moments came near the end of the concert, when Paramore’s Hayley Williams, supported by Becca Mancari and the Rainbow Coalition Band, turned Deana Carter’s “Did I Shave My Legs for This” into a riotous, playful ode to drag queens, with her best friend, Brian O’Connor, in drag backing her up as a singer.
“What they’re doing with this drag bill and how really it’s actually just a distraction from all these other horrible things that they’re trying to pass here. It feels like we’re in a relationship with our city and our state that’s like all give, no get,” she said before the performance. “And I imagine if you’re a drag performer in this town — skilled, talented, creative, amazing — I can’t help but think all of them wake up some mornings like, ‘Why the fuck did I shave my legs for this?’”
Even with the bright moments of joy and levity, there were shades of melancholy as if to remind us of what’s at stake. Julien Baker stunned the crowd with a piercingly lovely solo rendition of “Man.” Hozier, who said he considers the queer community to be “revolutionary,” got a huge reaction for “Take Me to Church.” And, even in this cavernous space, Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up” with Amanda Shires cut right through the room. (Jason and Amanda’s young daughter Mercy could be seen side-stage enjoying the music.)
Many musicians who’ve not yet had many opportunities to play to an arena-sized crowd also got the chance. East Tennessee’s Adeem the Artist sang about unrequited queer love in their “For Judas.” Izzy Heltai, a recent transplant to Nashville, performed “All of This Beauty.” Autumn Nicholas recounted and rejected painful lessons about sexuality and gender from her childhood in “On a Sunday.” “I am strong because I have lived this/I survive and I bear witness,” she sang. (Nicholas and Heltai will join other artists, like Aaron Lee Tasjan and Katie Pruitt, at “We Will Always Be,” a second benefit concert happening Tuesday at City Winery in Nashville.)
There were multiple PSAs, including several from Drag Race cast members, urging everyone to make sure they’re registered to vote and also donate to one of the partner organizations: Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee, Tennessee Pride Chamber, and Out Memphis. Nashville’s mayor John Cooper, receiving a tepid welcome, also showed up with a proclamation about “establishing a diverse and welcoming and inclusive city.”
Joy Oladokun, who performed “Somehow” right after the mayor departed the stage, was impressed by his willingness to be present. “It’s important when our elected officials take a moment to acknowledge that not everybody who supports them or who lives in their city looks the same,” she said.
Near the close of the show, Ruby Amanfu joined Shea Diamond and co-organizer Allison Russell — who performed as a backing musician and singer for many of the other guests — to sing “Beautiful Noise.” Before the three began singing, she touched on the righteous anger of the present.
“When we say representation matters, we think it means one thing,” she said. “Bitch, it don’t mean [just] one thing. ‘Representation matters’ means at the polls, in our schools, in our grocery stores. Why do you think this shit is the way it is? I love you hard, I love this crazy fuckin’ state… but I am angry at it. I don’t know if it’s gonna change, but what if, everybody in this section and that section said, ‘I am going to vote for the things that matter to me.’ Sometimes your vote is your voice.”
The moment burned hot and bright, generating enthusiastic cheers from the crowd as the three women sang their song. Minutes later, we were back in a place of joy as the Highwomen (Shires, Morris, Oladokun, and Russell) sang “Crowded Table” surrounded by a host of drag queens. Fittingly, that theme continued through the finale, with the whole cast singing a couple of old dance favorites in Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” (led by Yola) and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family. It felt like a warm embrace at a time when some in Tennessee can use it most.