On that dreadful Monday, March 27th, when six souls lost their lives in the Covenant shooting, my father-in-law called me to break the news. “There’s been a shooting at a school in Green Hills,” he started, and I dropped to the ground. I couldn’t breathe, my head was spinning. I felt like I might have a nervous breakdown when he continued, “It’s not their school. It’s not their school.” Tears were rolling down my cheeks. My two children were at a different school in the area, and while I breathed a sigh of relief that my kids were safe, my heart was already breaking for Nashville.
At the same time, I got a text message from my kids’ teachers saying they were in lockdown but not in danger. My hands trembled as I tried to reply. I thought about driving to go pick them up and bring them safely home, but the roads were closed. In the days that followed, I contemplated quitting my career and homeschooling them. How can we send our children into this evil world with broken people? How can we send them straight into danger? They were safe, and for that, I thanked God.
My 12-year-old hugged me when I picked him up. They were placed on lockdown immediately when the sound of sirens began screaming through the neighborhood. “The sirens lasted all day,” he said. I kissed both their heads, buckled them in, and tried to hide the tears in my eyes as we drove home. It was a traumatic day for the city, and my mind was far away. I couldn’t stop thinking of the parents and families who lost their loved ones. It’s a loss so devastating, so unthinkable, that it has us all thinking very deeply about how we can make it so something like this never happens again.
On Tuesday evening, I was asked to sing something at a vigil for the victims. I had planned to be there anyway, and it felt good to be of service at a time when the community was hurting. I remembered how I felt at my own son’s funeral — angry, numb, in shock. No words soothed me, but somehow the songs my friends shared at his wake helped me grieve. I wanted someone to sit beside me in the darkness, and that’s what the music did.
I began thinking about what song to choose, but how do you pick an appropriate song for the murder of elementary school children? I wrote down a list ranging from “Amazing Grace” to the old folk song “Crow in the Cradle” that I’d learned from a Joni Mitchell compilation. I feared that the latter would be too dark, the former too light (and predictable). I wondered if I would be able to make it through singing anything at all.
I sent a text message to Emmylou Harris and asked her opinion on my choices. She agreed that “Crow in the Cradle” was unfortunately appropriate, but most likely too dark. She told me to follow my heart. I cried a lot leading up to that moment, and finally on Wednesday afternoon, about one hour before I was to get onstage, I decided on “Tears of Rage,” a Bob Dylan and Richard Manuel co-write. But I chose Joan Baez’s arrangement, a stark, slowed-down, a cappella version from 1968’s Any Day Now. It was a piece of music that comforted me after the death of our infant son back in 2010, and I hoped it would convey the loss those families were feeling.
BEFORE THE VIGIL, I shared a moment backstage with first lady Dr. Jill Biden, Sheryl Crow, Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor, and his son, and some very special representatives called the “Tennessee Three”: Ms. Gloria Johnson, Justin Jones, and Justin Pearson. Dr. Biden greeted all of us, taking a moment to speak with the victims’ families. She shook Sheryl’s hand and then reached out for mine, and Sheryl graciously introduced me. She assured us that President Biden was doing everything he could to push through a very important piece of federal legislation that could prevent tragedies like this from happening again. We lit our candles and walked out into the sunshine. I held back the tears and somehow made it through the song.
“Tears of rage, tears of grief
Why must I always be the thief?
Come to me now, you know
We’re so alone
And life is brief”
I had corresponded with Rep. Johnson on Twitter, but the vigil was the first time we met in person. I’ve been admiring her work ethic — her no-bullshit attitude and perseverance — and felt a real kinship with her. Gloria quickly turned to introduce me to Sen. Heidi Campbell and Reps. Jones and Pearson. I shook their hands and mentioned to them that I was a mother, and that my children had been near Covenant the day of the shooting. They actively listened and made me feel heard as a concerned parent and citizen.
When I mentioned that I would be coming to the protest the following day, March 30, Reps. Johnson, Jones, and Pearson all said they planned to be at the protest as well. Just hearing that they would be supporting us gave me a little hope. Gloria asked me to meet her in her office the next morning so we could stand together, and I told her that my mother would be joining me.
I didn’t have time to make a proper protest sign, but I remembered that I had been gifted a megaphone by friends back in 2020. Michelle Manning Barish and Mickey Raphael (who you may know as Willie Nelson’s longtime harmonica player) had given it to me as a gift during the pandemic. I grabbed it from my closet, dropped my children off at school, and drove to the Capitol building.
Gloria met me and my mother on the street. She smiled when she saw me (and my megaphone), but told me I wouldn’t be able to bring it inside the building. I stuffed it under her scooter, and we walked through the marbled hallways. We stepped out to the balcony and saw a massive crowd forming in Legislative Plaza. It was inspiring. Young, old, white, brown, Black, mothers, children, doctors, students, all coming together to raise their voices to be louder and more effective than the donations of the NRA.
As we exited the building, Gloria kindly returned my megaphone, and I joined in with the others, leading call-and-response chants that started in the streets and traveled to the grass around the Capitol.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
I led a good portion of the crowd with my megaphone, trying to stay in sync with the Students Demand and Mom’s Demand crowd around the back of the building. Another chant started. This one made the tears well up and blind my eyes.
“PROTECT OUR KIDS. PROTECT OUR KIDS. PROTECT OUR KIDS.”
THIS IS NOT the first time I’ve marched. Back in September 2005, I participated in an anti-war protest in Washington, D.C. I have marched at both the Black Lives Matter and the women’s abortion protests in Nashville. Protesting does not always equal immediate results, but it certainly doesn’t hurt. Our country was built on the right to protest and freedom of speech. In my heart, there is nothing more patriotic or American than peacefully protesting. I’ve been inspired by activists my whole life, whether it be Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Joan Baez, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Gloria Steinem, Abby Hoffman, or today’s Greta Thunberg. I figure, if you have time these days to sit around and complain on the internet, you ought to get out and put words to action.
In the days following the protest, I experienced threatening comments, pushback, and verbal abuse online. I shared photos of me marching, captured by the brilliant photographer Ray Di Pietro. I even called out that I was a gun owner and had grown up in a rural area where hunting and fishing is the norm. That didn’t matter to extremists in the comments section. I was calling for stricter gun laws and the ban of assault rifles, and their comments quickly turned vile and aggressive. I worried for the safety of my family. That fear only magnified after I learned that the home of the founder of the left-leaning blog The Tennessee Holler had been shot at. I thought about deleting all of my social media and disappearing forever. I listened to an interview with Joan Baez and tried to cultivate the strength to carry on.
Over the next few days, I would come in contact with one of my greatest inspirations. I had tickets to see Joan in Nashville for the release of her new book, Am I Pretty When I Fly? Emmylou would be moderating the conversation, and I was beyond excited to see two of my favorite artists together. They graciously invited me back to their green room before their discussion panel began. Emmylou introduced me to Joan and told her I had been on the front lines of what was happening in Nashville. “She’s one of us,” Emmy said, making me blush so hard I thought I might disappear. Joan hugged me and kissed my head, asking if I knew of any demonstrations going on the next day in Nashville. She wanted to be involved with the movement going on and to support the Tennessee Three in any way she could. I told her that I was going to sing that following Monday at Rep. Jones’ reinstatement, but she would already be gone.
During their panel, someone asked Joan what she did when she felt hopeless. Joan said, “I sit outside, and if I can hone in and listen for the voice of just one bird singing, I can keep going.” After the book event, she signed my guitar. “Keep up the good fight and give my love to the Tennessee Three,” she told me, renewing my spirits. Joan would of course serendipitously run into Gloria and Justin at the Nashville airport, and she took a moment to sing “We Shall Overcome” with Brother Jones. The clip went viral. When I saw it, I thought they were like the birds singing in the chaos, helping the nation find its hope.
Not too long after, I was asked if I might deliver a letter to Gov. Bill Lee. The letter was drafted by organizers of Everytown and Moms Demand, and had been signed by more than 70 artists and bands, many of whom I knew. I had attended multiple gatherings over those couple of weeks and felt inspired by the knowledge and strategies of the leaders of both organizations. At the same time, an advocacy group called “Voices for a Safer Tennessee” was working alongside Everytown and was urging artists, especially in the country music space, to use their platforms to speak up about gun reform. Politics and country music have always been a complex combination, if not a taboo one. It’s a topic most artists steer clear of completely, as they have a healthy fear of alienating fans, losing money, or being canceled.
When Karen Scott of Everytown asked if I would hand-deliver the letter to Tennessee Republican lawmakers, I felt conflicted. Obviously, I wanted to help, but I knew that folks like Gov. Lee and I are fundamentally very different. I have spoken out about many of his specific policies, and at times, I have used my words like a dagger on social media to clap back at his unspoken bigotry. The last thing I wanted to do was spend my day sitting down with a bunch of people I probably wasn’t going to see eye to eye with.
It helped when I was told that I would be joined by Amy Grant, Sheryl Crow, Ruby Amanfu, Allison Russell, and Will Hoge. We met on the Capitol steps on the morning of April 18. Ruby stood beside me, sensing how apprehensive we both were. She reached out and grasped my hand, squeezing it tightly. “We’re in this together,” she leaned over and whispered, setting my mind at ease a bit.
The meetings that day were interesting. We were scheduled to meet with Lt. Gov. Randy McNally, Speaker Cameron Sexton, Leader Jack Johnson, and finally, Gov. Lee. In the few moments in between our meetings, we walked from office to office, asking if the representative was in and if they had time to meet. Most of them were in the budget meetings, and we dropped the signed letters off with their staff.
In many of the meetings, Sheryl and Amy sat front and center. It was clear to me that the men we were meeting with respected them. It felt like they were engaged and were listening to what we had to say. Everyone in the room spoke from the heart. Ruby took detailed notes and asked lots of questions. As we sat there and spoke, I was surprised to feel that the leaders seemed to be in support of gun reform. At least, that’s what they led us to believe. They presented us with proposed bills that they and their staff had been working on. They mentioned closing loopholes in background checks as a priority, and promised they were going to try to get some laws passed. We begged them to consider and pass the Extreme Risk Protection Order, otherwise known as ERPO laws, and asked that they address gun safety legislation before adjourning. We had three days left.
As we sat there and had a very civil conversation, we all agreed that this was bigger than political parties. The majority of Americans, both on the left and the right, were looking for answers. Gov. Lee had been personally affected by the shooting; his wife was very close to one of the victims. He was candid when he said that he too wanted change.
But in my eyes, the governor has continually supported bills and laws that have harmed women, trans people, and many others — and me lashing out at him in anger might not be the best strategy. In our meeting, I interrupted him and extended an olive branch. “I’m sorry for the poisonous things I’ve said about you on the internet. My children have suffered nightmares post shooting,” I continued, tears flowing freely from my eyes. “They were close to Covenant on the day of the shooting, and I was so angry. I lost a child nearly a decade ago, and it’s not a pain I would wish on even my greatest enemy. I know that you and your wife lost someone you love that day, and I want to offer my condolences. Truly, I am sorry for your loss. I am also frequently bullied online, so I understand how it feels to be berated in comments.”
There was a pause. “Thank you for saying that,” he replied. He, along with others in the room, were visibly taken aback. I went on by saying, “Even my far-right, gun-owning, Republican relatives are ready for gun reform in Tennessee. We don’t get along about much of anything, but they are fed up, too. This is your chance to be the good guys.”
SINCE THIS PIECE was written, Gov. Lee did call a special session. And although it won’t happen until July, we are not losing hope. We plan to use that time to organize and strategize. The movement is here. There has been a major call to action, and so many people are standing up. I have faith that Gen Z could be the generation that saves us all, and I will be right by their side.
As white women, we’ve been told by the patriarchy to sit and look pretty, to be silent and complicit. But that’s not our only option. What many of us don’t know is that we would have so much power if we could all just come together. We could use our privilege for change. Even in the music community, oftentimes there is only space for one woman on the bill. They try to divide us because the patriarchal structures know that if we all join together, we have the capability to dismantle everything. People of color have been marching for decades for their rights and for their lives. All we have to do is join them.
I believe we are on the precipice of a sea change in America. White supremacy is the root cause of gun violence in America, but the far right is always looking for a new evil villain and ways to distract the American people. They are banning books, dehumanizing trans people, eliminating Black history, restricting drag queens, and limiting access to safe abortion. But they draw the line at, and refuse to ban … assault rifles? Something must change. Our children are dying, and it’s time to put them first and stop this madness.
Donate what you can, become a one-issue voter, and vote for individuals who will insist on fighting for reasonable and responsible gun reform. Join Moms Demand Action. Join Everytown. Join Voices for a Safer Tennessee.
And as my brilliant friend Ruby says, “It’s gonna be a long road, but I’ve got my laces tied tight.”