Country music took a giant step toward inclusiveness Friday afternoon (June 12) at Nashville’s City Winery as artist after artist stepped forward to sing and voice support for gay and transgender rights.
Dubbed “The Concert for Love and Acceptance,” the event featured live performances by Ty Herndon, Billy Gilman, Crystal Gayle, Nashville actor and singer Chris Carmack, Deborah Allen, Tiffany, Desmond Child, Shelly Fairchild, Jamie O’Neal, Melinda Doolittle, Antigone Rising, Meghan Linsey, Jennifer Knapp, Levi Hummon and De La Torre.
Guitarist and former Warner Bros. recording artist Anita Cochran led the six-piece house band and also performed solo.
Herndon, who last year announced he is gay, and columnist/activist Meghan McCain co-hosted the show, which was sponsored by GLAAD (Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation).
McCain, daughter of senator and former presidential candidate John McCain, declared she is a Republican who lives in Los Angeles but “loves country music.”
Speaking to the crowd seated at tables, Nashville mayor Karl Dean said, “The future of Nashville lies in being an open and welcoming city.” He recited all the regulations and policies his administration had enacted to provide equal rights and benefits for gays.
Still in magnificent voice and not looking much older than he did when he scored his first hit in 1995, Herndon entered the stage to a standing ovation.
He kicked off the show with a dramatic rendering of that hit, “What Mattered Most,” and followed with the impassioned “Living in a Moment.”
“I’ve got to tell you that from the bottom of my heart,” he said, his voice choking with emotion, “I have never in my life felt more love and acceptance.”
Gayle hugged Herndon when she came onstage, and he joined her in singing a cover of Patsy Cline’s classic “Walking After Midnight.”
She explained the Cline inclusion by announcing that she’s currently recording an album of country standards.
Gayle closed with her signature tune, “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue.” The crowd began cheering at the song’s opening notes.
Chely Wright, who in 2010 announced she is gay, sent her greetings via video.
“My heart is with you tonight,” she said. “Ty, I’m so proud of you and so proud of your courage — and of Billy Gilman, too.”
Gilman announced he was gay the same day Herndon did.
With Herndon singing harmony, Deborah Allen riveted the room with her 1983 cry from the heart, “Baby I Lied.’
Next came a video pat-on-the-back from Reba McEntire.
“Ty, I’m so proud of you and all those standing up to say that we are all God’s children,” she said.
There was a pause in the music when Herndon brought Carmack to the stage to present him a Rally (Rescue a Life) award, the first GLAAD has issued.
Herndon praised Carmack for his sensitive portrayal of Will Lexington, the tormented gay country singer on the TV series Nashville.
“Playing that role has been a real gift to me,” Carmack said
Accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, he sang two songs: “Being Alone,” which he said is his “first independent single,” and “I’m on It,” a song “to give you a little taste of Will Lexington.”
Noting he has been touring with Jamie O’Neal, Herndon brought her out and sang with her on the two songs with which she’s most identified: “Trying to Find Atlantis” and “There Is No Arizona.”
The house band left the stage to make way for the four-women group, Antigone Rising. The high-point of their set was the song “Game Changer,” which was inspired by an 18-year-old “straight ally” in Sundown, Texas, who took a stand for gay rights despite her school’s vigorous opposition.
“To finally stand here and be [the real] Billy Gilman is amazing,” said Gilman, after he opened his set with “Billy the Kid.” He closed with Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” and had the crowd on its feet cheering before he finished.
At this point the band surrendered the stage to singer-songwriter Desmond Child. Seating himself at the piano, he noted Herndon was the first country singer to record one of his songs, that one being “Heart Half Empty,” which he co-wrote with Gary Burr.
“There’s no more manlier man — gay or straight — than Ty Herndon,” Child proclaimed.
Child then did “Livin’ on a Prayer,” the Bon Jovi hit he co-wrote with Jon Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora.
He enlisted the young singer De La Torre to assist him on “Weird,” his hit for Hanson, which he vowed was about being gay rather than just being different.
Finally, Child introduced Levi Hummon to sing “Make It Love,” the theme Hummon co-wrote for the documentary about Child’s children, Two: The Story of Roman & Nyro.
Hummon, who is signed to Big Machine Records, is the son of Marcus Hummon, the writer of such hits as “Born to Fly” and “Cowboy Take Me Away.”
Dove-winner Jennifer Knapp, former teen sensation Tiffany and American Idol alum Melinda Doolittle each captivated the crowd, which showed no signs of weariness even as the concert rolled into its third and final hour.
Herndon wrapped up the show by debuting three songs from his upcoming album: “All Night Tonight,” “House on Fire” and “The World We’re Living In.” Most of the cast returned to the stage to accompany him on the final tune.
“I want to thank my family,” said Herndon, gesturing toward a group seated at a table near the stage, “because this has not been an easy time for them.”
Meghan Linsey: “Amazing Grace”
Ty Herndon: “What Mattered Most,” “Living in a Moment”
Shelly Fairchild: “Love Everybody,” “Kiss Me”
Crystal Gayle: “Walking After Midnight,” “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue”
Deborah Allen: “Baby I Lied”
Anita Cochran: “Something to Talk About”
Chris Carmack: “Being Alone,” “I’m on It”
Jamie O’Neal: “Trying to Find Atlantis.” “There Is No Arizona”
Antigone Rising: “Game Changer,” “That Was the Whiskey”
Billy Gilman: “Billy the Kid,” “Crying”
Desmond Child: “Livin’ on a Prayer”
Desmond Child and De La Torre: “Weird”
Levi Hummon: “Make It Love”
Jennifer Knapp: “What Might Have Been,” “Remedy”
Tiffany: “Could’ve Been,” “I Think We’re Alone Now”
Melinda Doolittle: “I’m a Woman,” “Home”
Ty Herndon: “All Night Tonight,” “House on Fire,” “World I’m Living In”