In the fall of 2005 our band, Over the Rhine, received an invitation to the White House. Why would a moderately well-known band from Ohio be invited to the White House, you ask? (We were as surprised as anyone.)
It turns out some junior staffers were fans. They had also extended invitations to Bono and Peter Gabriel (who had both previously accepted) and they wanted to sit down with us as well and have a conversation.
We were hesitant to accept, because we had taken issue with a number of the policies of the Bush administration, but then we soon realized that what was so often missing from the current political climate in America were opportunities for folks who might have differing ideas to sit down face to face and actually engage in real conversation. How could we possibly be critical of folks we weren't willing to have a conversation with?
Our hosts started with a tour of the grounds. Some of the images we took away were astonishing -- Secret Servicemen (that looked like video game action figures) carrying black canvas bags full of weapons, snipers with machine guns and binoculars on the roof of the oval office, concrete barricades strewn about that made the whole place feel like it was under siege (very different from what we had observed years earlier as students on field trips). We saw FDR's desk that Nixon had defaced installing a hidden microphone.
According to our hosts, the talk behind the scenes in Washington often revolves around the enviable direct access to people -- and therefore power -- entertainers and musicians have. This caught us off guard. We think of people in Washington as having power, and here they were telling us that we had power.
They asked us what we hoped to accomplish with our music. We said that maybe first and foremost, we try to give people permission and encouragement with our songs to not live in fear. We expressed our disappointment at how we perceive fear is used as a manipulative force in so much policy making in Washington -- not to mention the steady drip of fear that informs the way so much of the news is presented on television.
There was an uncomfortably pregnant pause.
But we soldiered on. We discussed some of the charities we had partnered with in the past. We looked for common ground, common concerns, people we had in common, anything hopeful. They talked a bit about why they were fans of certain records we had made. We heard their stories about why they still believed in the political process and why they wanted to be involved. We drank coffee. We got to laughing.
We actually talked.
What we took away from that meeting primarily was this: American music is one of the last remaining communal enterprises in this country. Music and songwriting still have the potential to bring incredibly diverse people together. Check out an Al Green concert sometime in Cincinnati. Go to a jazz club after midnight in St. Paul. Check out an Emmylou Harris show in Indianapolis. Or walk into an Over the Rhine show just about anywhere for that matter. You will be amazed at the diversity represented in those rooms.
As we recorded our latest CD, "The Trumpet Child," we got to thinking of all the great music America has given the world as a nation, all the musicians that could have only come from here: Louis Armstrong, Patsy Cline, John Coltrane, Johnny Cash, Mahalia Jackson, Bill Monroe, Bob Dylan -- all this great music that regardless of political affiliation we can be proud of anytime, anywhere. American music!
It takes a messy, inspired, truly great experiment like America to birth and give the world ragtime, jazz, bluegrass, the old country and western songs that grew directly from our dirt, gospel, rock and roll, soul, rhythm and blues, our songwriters, our music.
We walked away from our meeting at the White House, and we wrote an odd little song that celebrates American music and gives shout outs to a few of our personal faves: Lightnin' Hopkins, John Prine, Steve Earle, Emmylou, Patsy Cline to name a few. We hope you like the song.
It's called: "If A Song Could Be President."
God bless you. And God bless America(n music).