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Molly Secours

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When Art and Activism Spill Over in Nashville: "Head for the Hills"

Posted: 07/13/10 04:29 PM ET

It seems the lines of art and activism have always been blurred and just like as a friend of mine says: 'A poem is rarely ever just a poem.'

I remembered those words several weeks ago when Nashville cinematographer Jeff Wyatt Wilson told me Nashvillian musician/songwriter Griffin House had written a rather powerful song called "Head for the Hills" about the recent Nashville floods and the oil spill in Louisiana.

That a great song was written in Music City, USA is certainly no news flash but it doesn't begin and end there.

After hearing Anderson Cooper encourage folks to support the residents most affected by the B.P. disaster by traveling to Louisiana and spending money, House and Wyatt Wilson decided to head down south to make their contribution -- and a video.

House says "I felt like instead of just being upset -- like everyone naturally is -- that I needed to do something to keep the attention focused on the reality of those most affected -- the locals: all the fisherman, their families and anyone else impacted in Lousisana." He just wanted to sing about the flood and the oil and not necessarily get caught up in the politics of B.P.

Eager to document what was happening and excited to capture images that reflect the spirit of the lyrics -- local faces and places affected by the spill -- both Wyatt Wilson and House were startled at the lukewarm reception awaiting them in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana.

Expecting the hotels to be virtually empty, they were surprised to learn the entire establishment where they managed to get a room had been reserved by B.P. and only by chance were they lucky enough to secure the last room available.

Although both artists have slightly different perceptions of their journey, both agree that the atmosphere was rather thin with hospitality and thick with suspicion. As if scripted by the Coen Brothers, they were pulled over and questioned -- without explanation -- by local authorities for almost 30 minutes and told their names were being officially 'recorded.'

House said it was uncomfortable at first but once the officers were convinced they were just two artists making a music video and trying to support the local community, they backed off a little. By the end of the 'interview' House gave them a signed copy of his latest record The Learner and joked with them: "now you can bust people to my music".

Not everyone, however, was won over as easily. When the two asked local fisherman on the docks of Venice to speak on camera about their personal situations and the consequences of the oil spill on their families, they were rebuffed and told that they had signed a 'gag order' -- a contract that stipulates that they will receive compensation from B.P. only if they do not speak publicly or privately to anyone about the spill.

Awkward silence. For Wyatt-Wilson, it was another eery Coen Brother's moment.

As it turns out there was little to photograph in Venice as oil had not made it's way to the shores yet but they were told they could hire one of the fisherman to take them to Grand Isle where they could get a much better sense of the devastation. The two had seen several boats toting major network news crews out on the water and decided since part of the mission was to support the local economy, they too, would take a tour.

Unfortunately for the fisherman -- and the young artists -- Wyatt Wilson and House went to Louisiana on their own dime -- not with a large recording label budget to foot the bill so when they were quoted $1000-$2000 for the boat ride, they scratched their heads and walked away.

According to Pew Research the story that has dominated the mainstream media for more than two months is dwindling rapidly and "the level of coverage has dropped by about two-thirds in the past several weeks."

To counter the accusations that B.P. was restricting media from reporting on the spill, the corporation dispatched public relations specialists (posing as journalists) whose mission was to reveal the 'upside' of the catastrophe.

Although they did manage to locate a few people willing to confirm that B.P. is indeed not the anti-christ, it would seem that their efforts were better spent elsewhere. The real 'upside' is that although B.P.'s antics are nothing to laugh at, they were widely exposed for sending fake journalists to Louisiana and appropriately rewarded with numerous comedy skits on major networks over the past several weeks.

Although they did not get the footage they originally hoped for and the trip to Louisiana raised more questions than answers, Wyatt Wilson says: "I'm glad we went. I just wish more actual journalists would continue to go down there and ask more questions. Something just feels 'not right' about the atmosphere down there."

Both House and Wyatt Wilson expressed compassion and concern for the locals who felt no choice but to sign an agreement that would silence their voices -- and minimize their plight. Disinterested in politics, House is hoping the video will keep turning people's attention back to what really matters: the folks whose lives have been permanently impacted.

Currently touring, House says the enthusiastic response from the live performances of "Head For The Hills" has convinced him it deserves a spot on his next record. And although he may not see himself as an activist, House is learning that a song isn't just a song.