(The ReTune Nashville Anniversary Celebration: A Music And Art Event will take place May 3 at Soundcheck Nashville in celebration of the creativity and resiliency of Nashville's music community. All proceeds from ticket and merchandise sales and an artwork auction will be contributed to the MusiCares Nashville Flood Relief Fund and the Nashville Musicians Association's Flood Relief Fund to directly benefit musicians affected by the May 2010 floods. For more information, visit www.retunenashville.com.)
Ordinarily, downtown Nashville after dark is a boisterous place. Tootsie's Orchid Lounge spills Music City's signature twang out onto Lower Broadway, while tourists wander past landmarks such as the Ryman Auditorium and legendary show poster printer Hatch Show Print.
But May 3, 2010, was no ordinary night. That night found Zeneba Bowers and Matt Walker on a rescue mission at the downtown symphony hall. Bowers and Walker are both musicians with the Nashville Symphony, led by GRAMMY-winning conductor Giancarlo Guerrero.
"The police told us, 'If you guys go into that hall you're doing it at your own risk. We're not going to come in there after you,'" Bowers recalls. "We went in anyway."
For the next three hours the two joined in a race against rising floodwaters, helping clear hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of instruments and orchestral music from the Schermerhorn Symphony Center's bottom floors.
In the days that followed several images would define Nashville's devastating flood of 2010: the Grand Ole Opry submerged in water; country star Dierks Bentley bailing out his basement; and a portable school building floating down Interstate 24. But none captures the music community's experience better than the image of two musicians wading through sewage-tainted floodwaters, boxes of music above their heads, while nearby the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum's burglar alarm sends an unanswered distress call out into the night.
Nashville is Music City, and the flood hit the music community hard. Millions of dollars worth of gear and instruments were lost at equipment storage facility Soundcheck Nashville. The efforts of Bowers and Walker notwithstanding, the Schermerhorn Symphony Center suffered $40 million in damages and remained closed for the rest of the year. The Grand Ole Opry House required $12 million in repairs, and remained shuttered through September.
"My friend Keb' Mo' had just moved to town the Friday before the flood. He put all of his stuff in Soundcheck and lost it all," recalls 20-time GRAMMY winner Vince Gill, one of many stars who lost instruments — many of them priceless vintage pieces — and other equipment there. "Everybody knows about Brad [Paisley] and Keith [Urban], people of notoriety, but what they don't know is the session guys and other people who lost everything there, too."
But in the great irony that is Nashville, those hit hardest were among the first to extend their hand. Some efforts, like that of Bowers and Walker, remain unsung. Others, including the numerous benefit concerts spearheaded by country superstars, drew the attention of millions.
Just three days after downtown flooded, Gill headlined an all-star flood relief telethon that raised more than $1.7 million — all the more remarkable considering the city was still enduring random power outages and water rationing. Among those artists performing was Urban, who played a borrowed guitar. On May 16, despite rehearsals for his forthcoming tour being halted, Paisley, along with artists including Bentley and Lady Antebellum, played Great American Country TV's Music City Keep On Playin' — A Benefit For Flood Relief, which raised more than $1.8 million.
Having helped approximately 3,500 clients after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, The Recording Academy and MusiCares stepped in immediately to help Nashville. MusiCares established the MusiCares Nashville Flood Relief Fund, distributing donations from artists such as Taylor Swift and corporate benefactors to help music people who needed everything from food, clothing and transportation to new instruments and gear. To date, MusiCares' fund has raised and distributed more than $1 million.
Other efforts raised money, while also raising spirits.
ReTune Nashville took damaged guitars donated by artists such as Gill and Paisley and gave them to local visual artists to be transformed into artwork. The pieces were auctioned, raising more than $35,000 for the MusiCares Nashville Flood Relief Fund and the Nashville Musicians Association Flood Fund.
Having lost its nearly new symphony hall, two Steinway concert grand pianos and its Schoenstein pipe organ, the Nashville Symphony vowed not to lose its season. Rather than cancel a Christopher Cross concert scheduled for the weekend after the flood, the symphony moved the concert outdoors and turned it into a free community event. Cross and his band donated their fees.
"We made a commitment that no matter what happened, we were going to keep playing music, because that's why we're here," says Alan Valentine, president and CEO of the Nashville Symphony. "Music has great power to instill hope in people, and we knew this would help people find an escape from all the pressure that the whole city was feeling."
Some at The Recording Academy Nashville Chapter wondered if their annual GRAMMY Block Party & Membership Celebration, scheduled for May 11, should go on as planned.
"We were thinking, 'Do we cancel this, do we move on? It doesn't feel right to have a party after so many people have been devastated,'" says Susan Stewart, The Academy's South Regional Director. "We decided, 'How can we not?' We used our event for fundraising and to bring people together, and we did a kickoff for the MusiCares Nashville Flood Relief Fund."
The show would go on. It had to — the city's economy depended on it.
The first major music event on the calendar following the flood was the annual CMA Music Festival, which kicked off on June 7. Arguably the city's biggest annual tourist draw, the festival takes over downtown Nashville for a week of country music concerts and fan club events and is worth some $20 million in direct economic benefit. But images of downtown Nashville covered in water were sending the wrong message.
"We had thousands of hotel reservations cancelled in our first week after the flood," says Butch Spyridon, president and CEO of the Nashville Convention & Visitors Bureau. "The CMA Music Fest was an opportunity to have our coming-out party: 'Look, we are open, keep your plans, don't cancel your visit.' That part of our recovery was as important as any other."
The Country Music Association voted to donate half the event's net proceeds to flood relief, and the music industry banded together to ensure the festival was a success. "I have never been part of anything where the music industry was more supportive or more cohesive in the messaging," Spyridon notes.
The result was a record attendance for the event, and a half million dollars raised for the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee's flood fund.
Today, the recovery continues.
Ellen Lehman, president of the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee, reports that one year later, the need for mental health counseling and case management is still there. Sentimental "hoarding" of moldy flood-damaged furniture poses a health risk, and she points to statistics indicating increased incidences of suicide and domestic violence among flood survivors.
MusiCares Executive Director Debbie Carroll agrees. "I think it's important for people to remember the need is still there, it hasn't gone away," says Carroll. "It may be an issue that's more quiet but people are still struggling. Many clients have said to us that the initial assistance was so great but our second round of assistance was even more helpful, because people had somewhat forgotten about it."
Despite the turmoil, the silver lining in Nashville's flood was seeing everyone come together to help. This spirit was exemplified once again at the Grand Ole Opry House's reopening last September, when Paisley and the Opry's oldest living member Little Jimmy Dickens led a heartwarming version of the country classic "Will The Circle Be Unbroken," while Trace Adkins, Martina McBride, Marty Stuart, and Urban — walking onstage arm-in-arm — joined in.
"They call Tennessee the Volunteer State, and I know why," says Gill. "What I admired most about the community, not only the music community but the whole state, is that people turned out. It was really neat to watch people all band together to make a big difference. For me it makes it even more authentic."
(Lisa Zhito is a Nashville-based writer covering country and contemporary Christian music.)