The Language Everyone Understands 

–from American Songwriter Editor’s Note. November/December 2018

Music is such an intrinsic part of the human experience some evolutionary anthropologists hold that it may have emerged as a communicative form of comfort between our ancestor mothers and their infants. These intonations may have even predated language itself.  Maybe this is why, despite the suppurations of the recent and anomalous “shut up and sing” movement, we instinctively look to musicians for insight and leadership in trying times.

After accepting the “Spirit of Americana” Free Speech Award at the Ryman Auditorium during September’s AmericanaFest, cover subject Rosanne Cash reminded us why we do so. In her words, “Artists and musicians are not damaged outcasts of society, but indispensable members. We are in fact the premier service industry for the heart and soul. We cannot survive without music. It is the language everyone understands in this dangerous and divisive time.” The annual honor was presented by veteran journalist Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center, an organization that first gave the award to her father, Johnny Cash, in 2002.

Rosanne, an active presence on social media, is an eternally vigilant and outspoken sort. For decades she has advocated against gun violence, even penning an Op-Ed in the New York Times following the gun massacre in Las Vegas last year. The four-time Grammy winner also serves on the board of the Content Creators Coalition (C3), a non-profit that advocates for fair compensation for artists in the digital realm. In the poison pit that is so often Twitter, hers is a voice that is always informed, measured and dashed with humor.

In accepting the Free Speech award, Cash was self-effacing, noting there are others more involved than her on the front lines who live “quiet, heroic lives of active compassion.” The Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame member is indeed right when she says we can’t survive without music — and besides, who would want to?



The music business can be a dreary affair. And when you work in Nashville, the constant machinations of the trade can make it easy to lose sight of why you devoted your life to music in the first place. Because of the economics of the business today, musicians are required to submit to an endless cycle of self-promotion. It’s tiresome for both artist and fan.

Yet despite the rigors of the business, more artists are choosing to step out of the fishbowl and engage directly at the civic level.

“As artists, we know how to self-promote and it’s hugely impactful and freeing to turn that energy outward and lend your voice to a larger effort,” says Nashville-based artist Kate Tucker, who started a community outreach organization called BriteHeart. “Civic engagement is an art form. At BriteHeart, we call it artivism. What do you care about the most? How will you tell the world? Just like we make sure everyone knows about our new record or upcoming tour, there are serious matters at hand and it is art, and music especially, that will bring people together and heal the division in our country. Now is our time.”

Tristen Gaspadarek, another Nashville-based artist who records and tours under her first name and was profiled in these pages last year, has launched a voter-registration program in Music City called Please Vote Nashville. She shows up at concerts and mini-festivals around town, setting up shop, getting people registered, and talking with voters.

“I want to live in a place where everyone feels protected, and cared for,” Gaspadarek says. “This all comes through very literally in my music and poetry. But art is not direct enough for me right now, so I started community organizing.”

“Elections come and go without a peep around town, and it’s a pain to get registered,” she adds. “Please Vote Nashville was created to make all of this easier and to create a culture where voting is cool and most importantly, easy. I wanted to create a space where people can be politically active, without being evangelical.”

For many years Emmylou Harris has been involved with animal rescue with her organization Bonaparte’s Retreat, which you can read more about in this issue. Harris holds a big concert called Woofstock every year to help raise awareness. In large part because of her efforts and pro-adoption message, the euthanasia rate has been reduced drastically in Nashville. Her goal is for all shelters here to ultimately reach no-kill status. “It’s not political at all,” says Emmylou of Woofstock. “Dog lovers are everywhere, regardless of party.”

Political or not, music is never just an end unto itself. It can be a vehicle for a better world, a better life.

Author: Caine O'Rear

Caine O'Rear is a writer and editor based in Mobile, Alabama. He is the former editor in chief of American Songwriter Magazine. Follow him at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: