Maren Morris, Hayley Williams, Hozier and Other Stars Sing Out for Trans and Drag Rights at Nashville ‘Love Rising’ Benefit
A cast of mostly Nashville-based stars, including Maren Morris, Paramore’s Hayley Williams, Yola, Sheryl Crow and Jason Isbell — plus one key out-of-towner, the Irishman Hozier — joined up with a host of Tennessee drag artists Monday night in Nashville to protest recent state legislation aimed at cross-dressing performers, trans youth and same-sex marriage. The four-hour “Love Rising” benefit, which filled Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena with fans and LGBTQ+ community members and their allies, was also livestreamed to an international audience via the Veeps platform.
No one received more of a hero’s welcome than Morris, who recently went out on a limb by standing up for trans youth and their families in a headline-making online debate with fellow country star Jason Aldean’s wife, Brittany Aldean, while most mainstream stars held their tongues. It was quickly evident that Morris has not turned into any shrinking violet as a result of the backlash she experienced from country fans on the right in the dust-up with the Aldeans, appearing on stage with a touch of androgyny in a look that combined legginess with formal black-tie. Morris performed her crossover hit “The Middle” while drag queen Alexia Noelle Paris accompanied her in an interpretive dance.
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Contrary to the belief on the far right that drag is something children need to be protected from, Morris talked about bringing her child backstage where, she said, he was transfixed to be meeting some of the show’s participants. “I brought my son here earlier today for soundcheck, and he’s turning 3 this week, and we got to go in the room where all the queens were getting ready and doing their makeup. And he freaked out when he went in there because it’s just magic what drag queens do. There’s wigs everywhere, and the smell of hairspray and wig glue; there’s glitter; everyone’s in a good mood. It’s just like a room of love. And we went back to my dressing room and my son is like, ‘I need the queens!’ I’m like, uh, you’re looking at her?” she quipped.
“Yes,” Morris added, “I introduced my son to some drag queens today, so Tennessee, fucking arrest me.”
Besides singing “The Middle” and “Better Than We Found It” (a song Morris wrote for her son amid the George Floyd protests she also found apropos for this occasion), the singer additionally participated in a collective Highwomen number, “Crowded Table,” with Amanda Shires, as Allison Russell and Joy Oladokun stood in for missing original members Brandi Carlile and Natalie Hemby. (Carlile could not attend but sent video greetings, and her Looking Out Foundation promised to match up to $100,000 in donations.)
Earlier in the show, fresh from opening at Taylor Swift’s tour premiere over the weekend, Hayley Williams sang two acoustic songs, accompanied by a non-binary guitarist pal, Becca Mancari, on the first, and her “best friend,” Brian O’Connor, in drag for the second.
After speaking at length about her extremely mixed feelings about being a resident of Tennessee at present, Williams introduced her closing number in a more jocular fashion by saying, “I imagine if you’re a drag performer in this town — skilled, talented, creative, amazing — I can’t help but think that all of them wake up some mornings and are like, ‘Why the fuck did I shave my legs for this?’ You know? So here’s a Deana Carter song,” she said, launching into a cover of Carter’s 1995 No. 1 country hit “Did I Shave My Legs for This?”
Williams was more serious in offering a lengthy preamble to her own “Inordinary,” a song from her second solo album that describes the circumstances of her arrival in Tennessee as a teenager, contrasting the relieved feelings she had at escaping trauma at the time with the tension that makes living in the state a mixed bag now.
“When I moved here to Tennessee, it was 10 days before I turned 13,” Williams recalled. “My mom and I fled a pretty traumatic situation in my hometown in Mississippi, and Tennessee and Franklin in 2001 were a refuge for us. It genuinely saved my mom’s life. It changed the course of my life. I literally met my bandmates the first year that I got here; Zach Farrow, who is the drummer for Paramore, is the reason that I know all the best people in my life…
“I have plenty to say about Nashville right now that might not be so positive. But to start, I wanted to play this song. There are good people here that are trying to continue to make this a good place to live. You are them. And this is a fucking incredible place to be. And I get torn about that sometimes because of everything that goes on politically, locally. Because of the fact that we cater and pander to tourists more than we do our own citizens in Nashville…” A huge cheer went up from many of the locals in the arena. “I don’t want to be a preacher, but I wanted to say first off that the creative community, the artists, the people that I’ve met here, many of who are part of the LGBTQ community, have changed my life and made me a better person. They’ve changed my family’s life, and I’m so grateful to be a part of fighting for all of you. And I hope that whatever small part I play can help. We have so many good artists in this city. Holy cow. To be a part of this community… I mean, it honestly feels some days like I want to run — I’ll be real. It’s you, it’s everybody here that’s involved, that keeps me feeling at home here.”
Nashville is often seen as a blue enclave in a deep-red state, and that feeling was bolstered by Nashville mayor John Cooper coming on stage midway through the benefit to deliver a proclamation that March 20 was officially Love Rising Day in the city.
“Every person, regardless of who they love and how they dress and how they identify, deserves to be treated with dignity and respect,” said Cooper, with singer-songwriter Brittany Howard standing behind him. “And here in Music City we recognize the importance of individuality, expression and diversity. We will always be a welcoming city. … And I speak for all of Nashville when I say to our LGBTQ+ neighbors and visitors: We are so glad you are here. … We must support one another by standing up and speaking out on discrimination and hate when we see it, because we are better and stronger together,” further describing Nashville’s commitment to being “diverse, inclusive and welcoming.”
Cooper was immediately followed on stage by Joy Oladokun, who said, “Thanks, mayor.” Following a few chuckles that made it seem as if some weren’t clear if she was being flippant, Oladokun made it clear she was serious. “I think 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.”
Oladokun spoke about her experience growing up in a true small town. “There was a time in my life where I just didn’t ever think that I would be an out” Black woman. “I’ve always been Black,” she clarified, jokingly. “That’s the part of the thing that’s very obvious. … But as a queer, sort of femme, but not totally in-the-binary human being, I never thought there was a world where I would be able to be out loud about who I love and how I love and why I dress like your dad on a Sunday.”
For all that’s changed, Oladokun added, “It’s fucking hard to live here — and anywhere, but specifically in a country that sometimes feels like it’s always attacking who I am. I know a lot of you feel the weight of that every single day, and I do too. And it’s hard not to just hide in the fucking house. But I wrote this song about the cyclical nature of life and how things turn around, hopefully for the better,” she said, introducing a song from her forthcoming album called “Somehow It’s New.”
Not all of the performers spoke at length. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires, performing individually and together, mostly let the music do the talking. The couple had been looking at setting up a benefit themselves to address the state’s anti-drag laws when they ended up pooling resources for a big, single event with Allison Russell, who was also making calls to round up the troops for a fundraiser. Isbell sang “Cover Me Up” and a cover of a Southern pop-funk chestnut, Wet Willie’s “Keep On Smilin’.” Shires joined him on fiddle on the former track before singing a recent original of her own, the title track of “Take It Like a Man,” possibly chosen because of its interesting take on gender roles.
Isbell was introduced by Hunter Kelly — one of the show’s organizers and its offstage emcee — as “everyone’s favorite follow on the Twitter.” Responded Isbell on stage, “It’s not exactly true. There’s a couple of people that don’t like me on the Twitters at all.” (The singer-songwriter is well-known for his cutting ways with trolls on social media, especially on social and political issues like the ones being addressed by the benefit.)
One of the biggest cheers of the night was reserved for the appearance of Hozier, who sang his biggest hit, “Take Me to Church,” preceded by another song, “Nina Cried Power,” which he sang as a duet with — and dedicated to — event co-organizer Russell, who’ll be his opening act overseas on an upcoming tour.
“As you know, I don’t hail from here in Tennessee, I’m from Ireland,” Hozier said. “But the (Irish) revolutionary James Connolly once said that no revolutionary movement is complete without its political expression. And I feel just for me, there’s so many elements of queer culture that are at times no less than revolutionary. In a time of political repression and suppression and artificially generated fear-mongering and scapegoating, I feel that just telling the truth of who you are and being who you are and standing up for that and expressing that is a very revolutionary act and a necessary act.” He said “Nina Cried Power” — originally written about Nina Simone — was really written about the type of artists that are on this bill, and one such artist is one that inspires me so much in doing all of just that. She is someone also who is so elemental in making this evening… Miss Allison Russell.”
In her own segment of the show, Russell brought out her public-schooled, middle-school daughter and a number of her school friends to form a quorum of kids supporting the cause, “staying up late on a school night because they believe in the power of loving community.
“I can’t say anything better than what has already been said by these utter goddesses, gods, and deities that we have been blessed with tonight. … We make a circle together and circles are powerful. There’s no one above, there’s no one below; a circle is whole. No matter how bloody, no matter how bruised, every single one of us is equal, worthy, and beautiful under this listening sky. And there is literally nothing that we can’t do when we work together in these magic circles. I know it.”
Some artists took an angrier tone, like Ruby Amanfu, who admitted she got more fired up than she had intended to going into the evening, as she thought about the culpability of the state’s residents in its government’s recent actions. In the 2022 elections, in Tennessee, “38.57% of registered voters came to the polls… Representation matters — 38.57%. Why do you think this shit is the way it is? … I love you hard. I love this crazy fucking state. I love it hard, but I am angry at it.”
One of the foremost transgender speakers of the evening was Cidny Bullens, a singer-songwriter who came to renown on the coasts in the ’70s and noted that he found community in the Nashville artist community before and after transitioning in the late ’90s. “It was Nashville that gave me a musical home, but all of that was as Cindy Bullens, my former self. All of my friends and colleagues here in Nashville supported me all through my transition and want and want me to thrive still,” Bullens said. “But the state of Tennessee does not support me or any other transgender non-binary or person in our wider LGBTQ+ community. When Tennessee legislators targeted innocent drag queens, denied transgender minors healthcare, when they voted to give county clerks the right to deny gay couples to marry — all in the last few weeks — they targeted us all. They targeted humanity. They targeted love. And this can’t stand.”
Sheryl Crow did a two-song acoustic segment, playing numbers from the earliest part of her solo career that she felt were relevant. Introducing “Every Day Is a Winding Road,” she said, “This song is 30 years old, and it’s strange how it just kind of rewrites its meaning all the time. Sometimes I do feel like a stranger in my own life, when I’ve got to explain to my little boys that some of us don’t get to live like we want to live, because it just doesn’t line up with somebody’s political (agenda).”
She provided context that probably few fans know about a song from her debut album, “Hard to Make a Stand,” which was actually inspired by a trans person. “There was a great coffee shop that we all used to hang out, where there was a 75-year-old man who was dressed as a woman. She was very friendly, — she would hand out flowers, but everyone was afraid of her. This was an unusual thing to see 30 years ago, and the patrons complained. And so I came in one morning and I said, where’s that lovely woman? She actually reminded me of my grandmother. And the owner said, ‘The patrons complained, and so we asked her to maybe not frequent us quite so often.’ And the next morning she slipped a note under the door that said, ‘If I’m not here, you’re not here,’ and signed it, ‘Miss Creation'” — as reflected in the sometimes obscure verses of the classic tune.
“And so I wrote a song about her. And this was during the same week that a young woman went to an abortion clinic in Texas and they shot her outside the abortion clinic. Now, this is 30 years ago, and these are the very things that we are still talking about. We’ve come a hell of a long way, and I’m happy about that. And we’re addressing people living their truths and how one person’s freedom is not compromised if we are all living our truth.”
Williams, toward the end of the show, summed up the mixed feelings that come with being progressive in a state with a conservative legislative super-majority: “Especially going to marches and doing stuff in town that feels so hopeful and progressive and being around people that feel like-minded, it’s such a heartwarming feeling, and it makes you feel like change is happening. And then like something else will happen. You’ll see election results, or some fucking asinine bill gets passed, or our lieutenant governor is just… you know.” (Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, who has supported much of the legislation seen as constraining LGBTQ+ rights, recently apologized for repeatedly placing appreciative comments on a 20-year-old gay man’s photos on Instagram.) “What they’re doing with this anti-drag bill, and how really it actually is also 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 all-give, no-get.”
Drag queens spoke throughout the evening, foremost among them host Asia O’Hara, but also local performers, like Deception, who works at a club downtown that is a tourist mecca. She spoke up about the contradiction between drag shows being an attraction for visitors and yet, from all legislative indications, ironically a source of shame for the business-minded legislature.
“Drag is a very, very vital part of Nashville’s tourism and income,” said Deception. “And Nashville has provided me with such a wonderful life here. Drag has afforded me to be able to put myself through college, and also to own two properties here in Nashville that I pay taxes on. So I contribute to our city and state economy just as much as any other Nashville in Tennessee. So it’s just not right for my livelihood to be put in jeopardy for political purposes.
“I come from a little small town in east Tennessee and I am a very proud transgendered woman,” she continued. “Right after high school, I did move away from Tennessee to transition because in the ’90s it was a little dicey. But 14 years ago I did get the opportunity to come back to Nashville and have my job, and I was so excited because my parents are aging. They’re 80 and 75, and so I get to spend a lot of time with them while my only other sibling is overseas in Southeast Asia doing missionary work. So you see, even though I am transgendered and I am a drag queen, I’m also a Christian, just like my family.
“I would like to say that being a trans individual has gotten easier from the ’90s, but sadly it just has not, and bills like these anti-drag bills are just making it even more difficult, and with the high rate of trans murders, that only adds to it — the way that they are portraying drag queens and trans people as being obscene and inappropriate. It’s just not facts.”
The four-hour show ended with Yola — who earlier had provided possibly the biggest knockout number of the evening with her own “Stand for Myself” — leading a stage full of performers and drag queens in “I’m Every Woman.” Brittany Howard followed by presiding over a full-cast sing-along of “We Are Family.”
Other performers included Julien Baker, Jake Wesley Rogers, Mya Byrne, Adeem the Artist, Autumn Nicholas, Fancy Hagood, Izzy Heltai, Shea Diamond, Sparkle City Disco and Wrabel. Brothers Osborne were one of the higher-profile artists originally announced, but did not appear, despite being credited in the end scroll on the arena’s big screen.
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