When choosing her setlist for the “Love Rising” benefit concert at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, Americana singer/songwriter Mya Byrne – who is proudly out as a queer trans woman and signed to Kill Rock Stars Nashville – initially planned to show off her new song “Burn This Statehouse Down.” The high-spirited collaboration with Paisley Fields that calls out Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee seemed like an obvious choice for the March 20 event that was booked in response to Lee signing anti-LGBTQ+ bills including a law banning drag shows on public property or where children are present, as well as a bill banning gender-affirming care for youth.
Byrne explains that her girlfriend, fellow trans artist Swan Real, had another suggestion, saying, “‘We should play ‘It Don’t Fade,’ because that’s a song of hope in hard times … And we should play ‘Easy To Love’ because it’s talking about our love.’”
For many in the audience, the couple’s tender, loving performance was a stand-out moment, which ended with a swoon-worthy kiss and Real declaring, “Trans people are easy to love.”
Supporting LGBTQ+ artists and executives in today’s political and social climate has become more urgent. As UTA’s Toni Wallace writes in her guest post, “Pride feels different to me this year. … The world in which we live today is extremely polarizing. … So many human rights issues seem to be moving backward not forward.” Some artists are afraid to travel to certain states, while death threats have forced the host of Apple Music’s Proud Radio to leave Nashville. And while many LGBTQ+ artists have found success, others are still waiting to be fairly paid and given the chance to play mainstream festivals.
Earlier this month, the Human Rights Campaign (HRC) declared a state of emergency for LGBTQ+ people living in the U.S. – a first in its 40-year history – with an announcement saying “the sharp rise in anti-LGBTQ+ measures has spawned a dizzying patchwork of discriminatory state laws that have created increasingly hostile and dangerous environments for LGBTQ+ people.” The HRC is opposing more than 525 anti-LGBTQ+ bills. So far, a total of 74 pieces of legislation have been enacted into law in 2023 – double the number signed last year.
Love Rising is a perfect example of how the live industry can show support by giving LGBTQ+ artists a platform while protesting harmful legislation and raising funds.
Reflecting on Love Rising, Byrne says, “When I took the stage that day, what really struck me was just how at home and how safe I felt, how embraced I felt by the people who were just eager to hear what I had to say.”
The event’s inspiring performances continue to reverberate – from Byrne receiving multiple messages from fans who felt empowered after seeing the livestream of Love Rising on Veeps to funds continuing to roll in for Tennessee LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations on top of the more than $500,000 that was initially raised for Tennessee Equality Project, Inclusion Tennessee, OUTMemphis and The Tennessee Pride Chamber in partnership with Looking Out Foundation (which has pledged to double contributions received, up to a maximum of $100,000).
Love Rising organizer and award-winning Americana singer/songwriter Allison Russell, who describes herself as “a queer, intersectional artist and mother,” pointed out that the team behind the event was “racing against time” to put on the show before the drag bans were to take effect on April 1.
To get the plan in motion, Russell, who sits on the board of the Americana Music Association, reached out to folks who are also on the board’s DEI committee along with Ali Harnell, president and chief strategy officer of Live Nation Women (who was “in the trenches from the beginning”), Hunter Kelly of Apple Music’s Proud Radio, Brandi Carlile and her wife Catherine Shepherd of Looking Out Foundation and Carlile’s manager Carolyn Snell of Red Light Management, among others. Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires were involved early on, with Isbell serving as a coordinator on the artist side.
Russell shouted out everyone who donated their time to make the show happen, including showrunner Jackie Jones and publicist Meghan Helsel at Grandstand Media. She also praised digital marketing platform Propeller for “amplifying all of our fundraising efforts and voter registration efforts.”
Harnell explains that she was all in after receiving a text from Russell: “Brandi Carlile and Allison Russell could ask me to do anything and I would do it. These women are literally our salvation. They are so intentional about what they do and I would follow either one of them into the fire. And so we started looking at venues and a lot of artists raised their hands and we were off to the races.”
Russell adds, “We started dreaming big together and I had this crazy notion of could we pull off something at Bridgestone? I thought about how Tennessee is our ‘Volunteer State,’ and is so good at coming together after an actual disaster. And this to me is a political disaster that’s unraveling. It’s rampant fascism in the house of the people.”
Five days after Gov. Lee signed the Tennessee drag ban, the initial lineup for the benefit concert was announced and Love Rising took over Bridgestone Arena less than two weeks after that.
“Nashville has always been a community that supports each other in times of need. The Love Rising concert was another great example of that. Allison Russell, Ali Harnell and the entire team were able to bring together a wonderful group of performers to help raise awareness and money for nonprofits in the LGBTQ+ community,” David Kells, chief venues officer at Bridgestone Arena, said. “From our initial conversation to the show day was less than four weeks. The technical, musical and promotional talent of our community was quickly put into motion to help make the concert possible. There are few places that can make that happen.”
Although Love Rising was a huge success (grossing $652,447, according to Pollstar Boxoffice) both Russell and Kelly expressed their disappointment that some major artists from Tennessee – who have previously performed on stage with drag queens or whose music and style have been informed by queer and drag culture – were missing from the event and have stayed silent during this Pride season.
“Queer culture and drag culture have been intensely foundational and influential to every genre of American song, including, and especially pop music and country music,” Russell says. “You think they invented those sequins? No, they did not. (laughs)”
That said, Russell and Kelly also conveyed their gratitude for all of the artists who donated their time to take part in Love Rising, including Isbell, Shires, Sheryl Crow, Maren Morris, Hayley Williams, Hozier, Brittany Howard, Julien Baker, Joy Oladokun and Yola.
After securing big-name artists to help fill the arena, Love Rising was an opportunity to showcase up-and-coming acts.
“With Proud Radio, I have an entire universe of LGBTQ+ artists who I knew were ready for their shot on that stage – artists like Adeem the Artist, Izzy Heltai, Mya Byrne and Autumn Nicholas,” Kelly says. “We were able to get them up on that stage and play an arena for the first time. And they all brought it; it was incredible.”
The nearly four-hour long event lived up to its full name, “Love Rising: Let Freedom Sing (And Dance): A Celebration of Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness,” with a bevy of joyful performances including Jake Wesley Rogers opening the show with his self-love, anti-bullying anthem, “Pluto.”
Touching moments included Black Opry member and non-binary artist Autumn Nicholas performing “On A Sunday” about their experience in church and singer-songwriter and trans activist Shea Diamond sharing a spoken-word piece.
The night featured a number of fantastic collaborations including Diamond, Ruby Amanfu and Russell taking the stage together to perform a cover of “A Beautiful Noise,” which was recorded by Brandi Carlile and Alicia Keys and co-written by a team of female artists including Amanfu in honor of voting rights. Highwomen members Maren Morris and Amanda Shires also showed off the supergroup’s song “Crowded Table,” joined by Russell, Oladokun, Isbell and more than a dozen drag queens.
The event was MC’d by drag queen Asia O’Hara, a contestant on the 10th season of “RuPaul’s Drag Race” who has gone on to participate in tours including “Werq the World.” Additional drag queens and kings on the bill included Alexia Noelle, Aura Mayari, Britney Banks, Cya Inhale, Deception, Jaxson Stone, Justine Van de Blair, Obsinity, Samira Valentine, Sasha Dereon, Shelby La Banks, Trey Alize, Vanity, Veronika Electronika, Vidalia Anne Gentry and Vivica Steele.
“Performing at Love Rising was awe-inspiring and completely iconic,” Gentry told Pollstar. “Of course, I wish it could have happened under different circumstances, but to share one of my city’s most iconic stages, with some of music’s biggest and most legendary names, in front of 11,000 people there to share their support of the queer and drag communities was really something special – a moment I’ll never forget.”
The event also included video messages from artists including RuPaul reminding fans that “a social media post has never been as powerful as a registered vote.” And Nashville Mayor John Cooper took the stage to proclaim May 20 “Love Rising Day” in the city.
Russell was busy anchoring the night and supporting the artists who took the stage as part of the house band, the Rainbow Coalition Band, with Russell taking turns on banjo, clarinet and vocals.
Kelly was also a key player in making Love Rising happen including putting asks out to major artists, writing the script for the show, booking the drag performers and handling the voiceover intros for the event.
For Kelly, it was a last hurrah before he said goodbye to Nashville, where he had lived since 1999. After receiving death threats and struggling mentally living in Tennessee because he didn’t feel safe, Kelly has recently moved to a new state and is taking steps to safeguard his privacy.
“It really was a wonderful thing to be able to pour all of that anger, frustration and fear into this event. Because the queer community in Tennessee, and in red states across the nation, are just feeling very scared,” Kelly says. “Love Rising, for me, was like a last giving of myself of everything that I had – all of my resources to make these connections.”
The Love Rising team got to celebrate some good news in early June when a federal judge ruled that Tennessee’s law banning drag was “both unconstitutionally vague and substantially overbroad.”
For Russell, the ruling felt especially “joyful and full circle” because she learned the news while attending an award ceremony hosted by the Tennessee Pride Chamber in which she was presented with the inaugural Voice Of Change Award by Maren Morris and fellow Love Rising performer Vidalia Anne Gentry was honored with the Advocate of the Year Award. Harnell was also nominated as the Business Leader of the Year.
“With the Shelby County judge’s ruling, I breathed my biggest sigh of relief since the bill was introduced last fall,” Gentry says. “Of course the fight is never over – there is still so much hateful legislation that was passed this session, especially the anti-trans and gender-affirming care bills.”
Though a number of other anti-drag bills have been introduced across the country, Brandon Voss, founder of Voss Events, says that sales have remained strong for shows including “Werq The World” from RuPaul’s Drag Race (see Box Office Insider here) – but certain events have faced protests and even threats.
“Our shows are continuing as normal. The main change is that some venues, namely in Florida, are apprehensive to host us unless the show is restricted to adults only,” Voss says. “While we consider our show all-ages, we’ve opted to make the show 18+ nationwide this year, which is upsetting for a lot of our younger fans. Other, smaller shows in certain states have been subject to protests and even threats because they allow children in. We don’t want to subject our fans, cast or crew to that type of negativity. Otherwise it’s business as usual and sales are strong.” He adds, of course, “Your readers should support drag by purchasing tickets at WerqTheWorld.com!”
Russell concurs that drag shows are safe for children as she reminisces about the finale of “Love Rising,” in which Brittany Howard, Ruby Amanfu and Yola took the stage with a number of drag queens to sing Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman” and Sister Sledge’s “We Are Family.”
“All of our kids ran up on stage. … Looking up at Vidalia Anne Gentry and all of these beautiful drag queens dancing and singing – my daughter came off that stage just beaming and said, ‘Mom, this was the greatest night of my life.’”
Russell adds, “Love is still rising in Tennessee. We’ve all had so many people reach out and say, ‘When’s the next one?’ We’re thinking about ways that we can mobilize our music community to do outreach around voter registration as we go into 2024, so we’re not faced with this same kind of imbalance in government ever again.”