Week #1: The Dream Begins

Week #1: The Dream Begins

After years of practicing songs, 10 months of writing, and 7 months of tour planning, my first Better Angels Benefit Show opens tomorrow! Opening night is nearly sold out and filled with old friends from my hometown. Plus, in a last minute surprise, the president of Better Angels–David Blankenhorn–will introduce the show!

In celebration of this long imagined tour becoming a reality, I’m sharing the song that planted the seeds for this project. 2 years ago–just after the 2016 election–my lungs started filling with nodules. After hearing my diagnosis, I didn’t think singing and dancing were things I’d be able to do much longer. I wrote this song to help myself come to terms with new limitations on my future.

But through a series of positive turnarounds, I recovered my health and discovered Better Angels. And because I am healthy again, so many of my dreams from that time have come true. I can travel, I can be a storyteller, I can finish books… Best of all, I can be part of the change I then asked of others. My show is giving me a way to help my country through my music and words.

During a time of utter despair, my music kept my dreams of my own and my country’s future alive. Now, I hope my show can persuade others to keep their dreams for our country alive too. We can still work together to make our country stronger. We can still recover. We can still take control of our country’s fate.

Thank you to everyone who helped me realize this idea. As in my song, I couldn’t have done it alone. I hope to thank you in person along the way.

Special thanks to JB Nuttle for filming and audio editing.

Week #3: Why a Music Tour?

Week #3: Why a Music Tour?

In just 2 weeks, I’ll be uprooting my life to perform 9 shows across the East Coast about why I’m committed to Better Angels and how others can support their work. The closer it gets, the more I keep asking myself why I’m doing this.

After I graduated from college in 2012, I ran a program on Civil War music at the Smithsonian of American History. I performed songs that showed how 150 years before, Americans had become so divided that they killed each other. I used my fiddle to tell stories of soldiers, generals, slaves, and musicians in a way contemporary Americans would want to hear.

6 years later, I still love learning old songs and the stories that go with them. But I’m no longer satisfied just playing songs from my country’s past. I’m too worried about my country’s future to only study history and not take action myself. So, I’ve also started sharing my own songs in the hopes I can thereby support things I care about.

One of the issues I care most about is polarization. I recognize that music might not be the best solution to that problem. In fact, during the Civil War, music was often used to exacerbate social divisions. As in the Confederate anthem Maryland My Maryland—set to the Christmas classic “Oh Tannenbaum”–even beautiful music can be used to demonize opponents. To call for violence. To gloss over the injustices of our own side.

But back then, music could be used to unite divided citizens. Soldiers on both sides liked drinking and dancing to fiddle tunes (e.g., “Soldier’s Joy”). Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln both loved the same melodies (e.g., “Dixie”). And citizens on both sides shared a longing for “Home Sweet Home.”

Likewise, even today, I believe music can be a tool for unity. It can help us listen without judgement, share personal experiences, and reflect on relationships. Music can offer healing and hope. And in these divided times, “the mystic chords of memory” can also remind us of our shared history.

So why a music tour? To bring out the “Better Angels” of my music; to use it as a tool of unity rather than division. I’m hoping that through music and organizations like Better Angels, we can find better ways to deal with our differences than through Civil War.

I’ve put years of work into making this show happen, and I’d love to share the results with you. Click here to reserve a ticket. We’ll be in Severna Park, MD; Philadelphia, PA; Harrisburg, PA; Summit, NJ; New York, NY; Bethany, CT; Providence, RI; Wellesley, MA; and Winooski, VT.

Week #4: Better Together

Week #4: Better Together

When I came up with the idea for this tour, it was going to be small house concerts for old friends and family that collected donations for a non-profit (Better Angels). However, after performing at the Better Angels Conference in June, I found an enthusiastic network who wanted to make this project bigger and more effective.

The first to join was psychologist and musical comedy performer Andy Roth. In couples therapy, Andy frequently helps feuding partners de-escalate conflict, and joined Better Angels to apply similar methods to feuding citizens. This tour struck him as an opportunity to de-escalate conflict using his artistic skills as well. Andy has generously dedicated months to planning and practicing and will take 2 weeks off work to tour. Moreover, for the one show Andy can’t make (in Vermont), my friend Sam Averbuck is helping revive “Sam and Sage” in Winooski, VT.

After Andy joined, new friends from the conference offered to plan logistics. Then old friends and family volunteered their homes and religious centers as venues (mostly for free!). The grammy nominated songwriter Steve Seskin gave us permission to perform his songs. Music video guru JB Nuttle offered to film promotional videos. We even found organizers for workshops to run in conjunction with the concert. Eventually, the national leadership team for Better Angels got involved. David Blankenhorn (the founder of Better Angels) will now be introducing multiple shows.

More than just expanding our reach, this new scale has also changed the show’s content. As our list of performers and organizers expanded, the number of potential songs, themes, and artists grew too. That meant I had to transform this project from just “my show” into something that gave others a voice on stage as well. In addition, as our audience expanded, I’ve had to ensure the show remains relevant and open. For example, I’ve included songs I disagree with. I’ve cut songs that dismiss or simplify my opponents. I’ve tried to ensure there’s something in this show for everyone.

Hence, my planning process has been an exercise in respectful communication. To make the show interesting, entertaining, and accessible to people of different political beliefs, I’ve had to make compromises and adjustments on what I say and how I say it. But I also believe this challenge has made for a better show than I could have produced on my own.

And with all the work so many of us have put into this project, I hope you’ll make time to attend yourself. This tour is giving me the rare opportunity to see old friends and meet new ones. I hope you’ll be among them.

To RSVP, click here!

Week #5: Don’t Label Me. Talk To Me

Week #5: Don’t Label Me. Talk To Me

“I can’t even talk to a Republican/Democrat because they’re bad/stupid. After all, they must be [insert dismissive label here] to support such [repeat dismissive label] policies.”

I’ve heard this type of rhetoric a lot lately, especially leading up to the midterms. Because we see policies as heartless, hateful, racist, naive, delusional, etc., we say that the people who support them are those things too. But this logical leaping always reminds me of the first lesson I learned at my Better Angels workshop in July, 2017: don’t make assumptions about people’s character based on their policy positions.

Say you disagree with someone about welfare policy. You could insult the other person for hating poor people or wanting the government to control everything. But these labels are inaccurate and shut down avenues to better understanding. Alternatively, you could talk about how and why both of you came to your position on this policy. You might find out one of you saw the system abused and is concerned about upholding individual responsibility. Maybe the other person used welfare and sees it as protection for our most vulnerable citizens. With those insights, you could then have a conversation about how welfare actually works and what values we should prioritize as a country. Afterwards, you probably won’t agree on everything, but you might not hate each other.

Most of the time, we never get to those conversations. Instead, labels prevent us from understanding what really divides us. And of course, it’s so much easier to make inferences and exaggerations that demonize our opponents. That way, we don’t have justify our own positions. And we don’t have do the slow, frustrating work of uncovering the true source of our disagreements.

Simplifying conflicts into right/wrong sides is easy, but in reality, people’s political motives are more personal and complicated than the labels we throw at them. If we can acknowledge the limitations of these labels, we can start having more productive conversations about how and why we really disagree.

Moreover, if we won’t even try engaging those with whom we disagree–if we label every political opponent as an enemy–how are we supposed to live together? To solve our common problems? Aren’t we supposed to be a country that builds it strength on diversity? E pluribus unum?

I hope our new divided Congress has answers to these questions. I hope they stop throwing labels and try to work with each other. And I hope we as citizens will model the behavior we expect from them.

P.S. I had these mugs made for my tour! I’ll be selling them after shows so you, too, can inspire conversation.

P.P.S. Reserve your ticket here!