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Musicians Come Out Singing And Swinging Against New TN Laws

When Nashville’s Allison Russell disembarked from a week of sun, music and escapism as the Cayamo music cruise 2023 came to a close in February, the reality of what was happening on land hit her hard. The Americana star saw Tennessee on the verge of enacting two new laws restricting the health care options for transgender youth and expressive freedom for the LGBTQ community.

“I couldn't sleep for two days. And I started thinking, well what do we do best in Nashville? We come together with music to raise money to raise awareness,” Russell told WMOT on Wednesday. She sent up a red alert to her fellow members of the Americana Music Association’s committee on inclusion and diversity. “I reached out to all of these people saying, you know, could we pull off a huge concert? (Fellow member) David Macias said, you know what? Jason Isbell has been talking about the same thing. Let's join forces and do this all together and really blow it out.”

In a matter of days, artists had been booked and the Bridgestone Arena secured for one of the larger political protest concerts in memory, set for Monday night. Love Rising: Let Freedom Sing (And Dance)is billed as “a celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Its marquee artists will include Russell, Maren Morris, Jason Isbell, Amanda Shires, Sheryl Crow, Hozier, Hayley Williams of Paramore, Yola, Brothers Osborne, Brittany Howard and Joy Oladokun. At least one transgender artist - Mya Byrne - is on the bill as well. Funds raised through tickets and online donations through a livestream (find it here) will go to Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee,Out Memphis, and the Tennessee Pride Chamber.

That show may be only the beginning of the music community’s uprising. The following night on March 21, the City Winery presents We Will Always Be, a benefit for Inclusion Tennessee “celebrating Nashville’s queer voices,” with music by Mary Gauthier, Aaron Lee Tasjan, Kaitlin Butts, Katie Pruitt, Lilly Hiatt, She Returns From War, and the Shindellas, plus a cast of drag performers.

The scope and size of Nashville’s music community reaction has impressed Russell. “The pickup has been extraordinary,” she said. “And I think that's a testament to, to the greater sort of zeitgeist of this time, which is we are not going to tolerate fascism. We're not going to just pretend it's not happening. We want to support the full rainbow spectrum of our beautiful state and country and world.”

The laws in question, both signed by Gov. Bill Lee on March 2, reach into very different aspects of queer life. SB0003, as it was known on the day it passed the legislature, revises state obscenity laws to outlaw “male or female impersonators who provide entertainment that appeals to a prurient interest” in venues where minors could see them, including all-ages venues like the Bridgestone Arena. That’s “a direct attack…on an artform with a long history,” said the TN Pride Chamber in a letter urging Lee to veto the measure that was signed by more than 200 businesses and professional groups.

“The challenge with the drag law in particular is that it is so broad that it either does nothing or it does everything,” Chamber President Rosman told WMOT. “And what will end up happening with this bill is that we will see selective enforcement in places like rural areas of Tennessee where they don't know any LGBTQ+ people. And we're already seeing pride festivals in Franklin and Murfreesboro being told that they may not get a permit this year for pride, regardless of whether they have drag.”

Meanwhile, SB0001 bans most aspects of what advocates and physicians call “gender affirming care” for minors. The law “effectively halts all treatment for gender dysphoria in the state of Tennessee,” says Rosman. “ There is a one year sunset period for people who are currently receiving care to transition off, but it is a bill that will have terrible consequences for anyone who is transgender in the state.”

Transgender health has recently become an energizing if contrived controversy for conservative and Republican officials in many parts of the country, motivated, they say, by a desire to protect children. WMOT reached out to Gov. Lee’s press office for comment about the music industry’s widespread opposition but received no reply.

Rosman adds that it’s not just Americana and left-leaning independent actors in music stepping into this dispute. Signatories on the anti-SB0003 letter include industry giants Warner Music Group, Sony Music Group, and AEG Presents. “The entertainment industry in Nashville is certainly more engaged and more fired up about equality than I've seen them since I've been in Tennessee,” Rosman said.

Lauren Tabak
Mya Byrne

“I knew that our community was not going to take this lying down,” said Mya Byrne, who’s set to perform on Monday night’s concert bill. She’s New York based but deeply involved in Nashville, where she recently made an upcoming album called Rhinestone Tomboy with songwriter Aaron Lee Tasjan as producer. Byrne says representation of trans artists is still anemic in roots music and that she has personally seen gig and festival opportunities dry up in some places since she came out a few years ago. At the same time, she says she’s found a supportive community of peers in Music City, and sees them as ready to take action. “The roots community is angry, because (the laws) affect their friends and family. And as Nashville has become so much more queer and trans in the past few years, it affects everybody.”

“We both got kind of emotional about seeing her name on that poster,” said Tasjan, who’s known Byrne since well before her transition from their early days on the scene in New York. “Seeing this trans woman's name (next to) Jason and Maren and Yola may seem like a small thing to some people, but I can tell you, it was very significant for us, because this is what we are wanting to do is help create space for trans people at that table.”

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org