I grew up throwing dirt clods for sport and listening to Garth Brooks and Vince Gill on cassette tapes. Bare feet and dirt roads. When I was older, four-wheelers and trails through the woods. In high school, I was a part of the self-proclaimed redneck crowd donned in Carhart coats socializing around their oversized trucks with lift-kits. I still remember when my dad moved out when I was in second grade into another trailer across town. He had cable, and I was introduced to CMT and music videos. All that is to say, I was raised in the country on country music.
Though my musical tastes are broad, country music emanates this feeling of home. There is this unparalleled community that happens in the country music world. There is a shared history and love of the South and its culture, a fondness for simple pleasures in life, and the sweet twang—all of these things bringing musicians and fans together.
Jess and I share an office, so when she looked up the information about CMA Fest, I was the first to hear about it. My job is mostly administrative and doesn’t require me to go on the road very much, but I knew that if TWLOHA was going to be at CMA Fest I wanted to be there. Of the fourteen people on staff, Jess, Chris, and I are the only country fans. Chris is from Georgia, so it’s a part of his soul. Jess is a diehard fan and has adopted a bit of a twang. But we were sure it wouldn’t work. Summer is our busiest season, and TWLOHA has never been involved with the country music world at all.
Jamie and Rich said yes. Surprised but incredibly excited, Jess submitted our application. The CMA Fest only has three or four nonprofits, a much smaller number than we’re used to so we were unsure whether or not we would get picked. Next thing I know, Chris is packing the back of the Jeep like a jigsaw puzzle while Jess, Emily, and I organize pillows, snacks, and music for the long drive to Nashville. Although Emily wasn’t a big country fan before the festival, she left singing along to Lady Antebellum and Carrie Underwood and still laughing about Blake Shelton’s jokes.
I’ve been back for ten days and I’m still smiling and singing Zac Brown Band’s “Free” with a majestic hope in my heart. I said the words, “we’re a nonprofit raising awareness about depression, addiction, self-injury, and suicide” with an info card in my hand and sweat trickling down my back 847 times, and I didn’t get tired of it. Some people politely listened feigning interest and others really heard me and tied a string from themselves to us because somehow our story was their story, too.
Peggy didn’t expect to be so drawn in. She stopped at the McDonald’s tent to get a snack for her granddaughter waiting at the picnic table when our funny name caught her eye. For the 321st time, I told a stranger who we are. Holding back tears, she told us about her niece Jeanie and how much Jeanie needed to know about us. “This is so Jeanie, all Jeanie,” she kept saying and shared how Jeanie has dealt with great loss and pain in the last year. Peggy walked away and wasn’t a stranger anymore.
The next day, Chris was helping a petite soft-spoken woman with her blonde hair cropped just above her shoulders who was learning about us for the first time. I came up when she was paying for her Love is the Movement shirt. Holding back tears and digging in her wallet, her gaze not meeting our eyes, she said she lost her brother to suicide. I said I was so sorry to hear that and Chris asked her name. Asking someone their name gives them this unspoken validation that they matter even though they may be a stranger. Through her smile, she said her name was Lisa, and I knew I would never forget her. She looked at me and said, “Mom and Dad are never the same,” and I said, “Yeah, it changes everything—nothing and no one is ever the same.” She nodded, and I asked when her brother passed sure that it was within the past few months. Her voice cracked as she said, “1986.” I tried to contain my surprise. I haven’t lost someone to suicide, so I haven’t dealt with that kind of pain personally. Her brother has been gone longer than I have been alive, and her pain at losing him is still so fresh and real. She held up her shirt, bowed her head, and said thank you as she walked away, and I wonder who is more grateful that she stopped at our tent—her or us?
At CMA Fest during the day different zones are open and most of them free to the public, but at five booths start closing up for the night for everyone to get dinner and make the trek to LP Field across the bridge for the evening concerts. Passes to the concerts were included with our booth package, so each night we joined more than 40,000 people to sing and dance to our favorite country songs. Anyone who enjoys seeing live music knows the magic of being in a crowd of people, singing the same song at the top of your lungs and getting goose bumps. It doesn’t always happen that way in the nosebleeds, but during Keith Urban’s set it was inevitable.
In case you’ve been under a rock and don’t know this, Nashville had an awful flood the first weekend in May. Most of downtown Nashville (where CMA Fest is held) was under water. In the beginning, the media didn’t give it much coverage and the city wasn’t getting help from the outside. But Nashville banded together, pulled themselves up and did what they had to do to get their city on its feet again. Restaurants spent their days making bag lunches and giving them away throughout the city, while other people worked to repair the damage. A little more than a month later, they were ready to host the first ever sold out CMA Fest.
Keith played his whole set, then he talked about Nashville and the flood. He talked about how proud he was to be a part of a city with such a strong community, how people joined together without thinking twice, and how important it was for all of us to be there at CMA Fest, how much Nashville needed us to come. He dedicated his next song to the city and the people and launched into a cover of “With a Little Help from my Friends” with Little Big Town. The performers at Heavy and Light this year also covered this song, but this performance had a different force, a different power, a different magic with images from the flood flashing on the screen behind the band. We stood and we sang and we rocked (yes, we still rock out in country music). In The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Charlie talks about this moment where he and his friends are singing together in the truck and he says he felt infinite (page 39), and this night, this song, this moment is infinite for all 40,000 of us.
Depression doesn’t care if you wear a cowboy hat with Wranglers or skinny jeans with Converses. I hope that through this small window into what may be a different world you see that this story may be your story, too. It may look different and sound different, but pain is universal. Hope is, too. That’s why we went because everyone is a part of this ongoing conversation. May your life look like this—where strangers become friends in an instant, where 40,000 people can feel like family, where a song and a few pictures become an infinite moment you want to tuck away so you can take it out again and again.
So much love to all of you strangers reading this.
Know that there is someone down in Florida who believes in you.
Thank you for letting me be a part of your story.