there is still goodness : a review of Brandi Carlile’s Ryman Residency

Y’all, I’ve got a girl crush.

It’s hard to put into words all the feelings I felt after attending Brandi Carlile’s 6th and final show at The Ryman two nights ago. But like W said as we crawled into the bed at 1 AM on a Wednesday morning, “I feel like I just got back to my room after hanging out in my big sister’s room, after she told me I was cool.”

His comment made me laugh when he said it – it was so odd and innocent. But as I settled in to sleep, I realized he was right. Because that’s exactly how it did feel – even though neither one of us has an older sister whose room we can hang out in to feel “cool” when we need to. Being in that room – the Ryman – and being a part of that experience, had left us both with an aura of calm, a sense that everything was gonna be alright, and the satisfactory feeling that we are all in this together, every day, united by something much bigger than any of us can imagine.

photo c/o because my dang camera wouldn’t upload

It started with watching the crowd take shape as the doors opened and the seats began to fill. I was amazed by the sheer diversity I witnessed around me: from the young lesbian couples to the old lesbian couples; from the single girls who bought their own tickets to the middle-aged Nova Scotian travelers sitting in front of us who came to see the opening act; from the Seattle-style hipsters to the wild woman cowgirls; from the guy with the long purple hair to the male country music stars who seem to stand in the way of the efforts of rising female stars, but apparently support them just as much as the rest of us (yeah, I saw you in the merch line, Dierks Bentley) – there wasn’t one of us who didn’t belong there. Because we all belonged there. And Brandi was there to remind us of that.

You see, this woman is a force for change and radical acceptance. She knows this world isn’t perfect, but she’s willing to stand defiant and speak her truth in a way that is filled with love and light – not hatred. As a straight, middle-class millennial, it never struck me as “odd” that she would perform in Tennessee. But apparently there are a number of artists out there boycotting shows in places that aren’t supportive of LGBTQ rights, and she actually got some flack for choosing to do this Ryman residency.

In an Instagram exchange about a week ago, she made it clear that treating people equally is the number one priority – and that a number of LGBTQ fans would only suffer from her not playing in their area – not to mention those who could stand to learn something about acceptance. On top of that, those of us entering the venue were met with volunteers offering voter registration. You see? Be the change, don’t just huff about what’s wrong. I love that about her.

From her incredible Grammy performance of “The Joke” to her groundbreaking feminist work with Tanya Tucker and The Highwomen, I’d been wanting to see Brandi Carlile live for over a year. Last July, I’d logged onto Ticketmaster in the hopes of getting just two tickets to one of these 6 nights of shows. But I couldn’t if I wasn’t willing to shell out the $500 per seat that Ticketmaster now wanted me to pay. It seemed that every opportunity — from the rained-out 2018 Pilgrimage Festival to the inconvenience of a weekend in Lexington — had been thwarted by one tragedy or another, and I figured this was just another one of those times.

Until I got on StubHub last week to find a couple of affordable tickets up in the balcony, to which I said, “YES PLEASE” and bought without a moment’s hesitation. I hadn’t been this excited to see a live show in a long time – or, truly, I hadn’t been able to afford most of the live shows I’d wanted to attend here in Nashville in a long, long time.

But this show – this moment – was worth every dang dime I spent to get into it. It was worth the $90 tickets, the $10 parking, the $12 beer, and the $30 t-shirt I bought when they ran out of Hatch Show Prints. Because I will remember it forever – and I know it will never happen, in that place, in that way, in that moment, ever again. This wasn’t only the best night I’ve had in 2020 – this was likely the best show I’ve ever witnessed.

Can you tell how bad I’m fangirling right now?

So, knowing that elaborating on every magical moment in the way I’d like to would leave you reading this for another hour or two, I’ll just share the highlights:

  • The sound of opener Courtney Barnett, an alt-rock lesbian Australian singer famed for her monotone lyric-heavy writing, singing Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” in honor of the animals losing their lives and habitats in the bush fires, right there on the spot where he sang it nearly 70 years ago.
  • The sheer energy that erupted as Brandi + Co took the stage to “Hold Out Your Hand,” a song that responds to the gun violence affecting our country, which visibly and viscerally brought out so much emotion in the crowd. Together, we felt like a chorus for change.
  • Brandi’s awestruck fandom not only for the Ryman, but for the legacy of the Grand Ole Opry – the “Disneyland” that her family couldn’t afford to bring her to when she was young. I love that I know this about her – and it makes everything she does feel even more heart-centered than I already believed it was.
  • The way the audience sat in respectful silence and allowed her to speak, sharing long and funny stories about her children, her wife, and memories of her first trip to Nashville with her mom.
  • The feeling of hearing your favorite songs live for the first time.
  • The moment in which Brandi and the Hanseroth twins took to the stage without their microphones to let the Ryman do its thing and amplify their voices all by itself.
  • The dance party that ensued around 11 PM when Ruby Amanfu came out and everyone sang “Like a Prayer” and “Total Eclipse of the Heart” – complete with a 3-person church choir with some pretty sweet dance moves.
  • The simplicity of the design, the power of the instrumentation, the way everyone on stage stomped their feet, danced around, and felt each and every note. Words recited, not sung, like a pastor preaching her sermon of humanity, kindness, and hope. This show wasn’t about the theatrics – it was about the songs and the stories. You don’t get that every day; and I don’t think I’ve witnessed that in a show in a long time. It renewed my love of music – of the business, the personalities, the camaraderie, and the impact – and it almost made me want to be a part of it all over again.

But that’s not all, because after what seemed like 3 “finale” songs – and after the band left the stage – Brandi came up to the very front edge, sans microphone, and led the entire audience in a 3-verse singalong of “Amazing Grace” – because even in this world, where we can’t agree on so many things, and one would assume a strong, liberal LGBTQ woman might have lost some faith, the entirety of that “congregation” was filled with more spirit, soul, and hope than I have EVER experienced in a church.

And that moment – it wasn’t about her. It was about all of us, together. (Not to mention, when something like this happens in Nashville, people SING — in 3-part harmony. It’s enough to bring you to tears. And it did, a couple of times.)

The term badass may be antiquated and misappropriated. The concept of the wild woman may be blurred around its edges. But someone who so vividly encourages so many thousands of people to feel free to own their paths on a nightly basis – they embody those terms like nobody else. And they go to prove that there is still so much goodness in this world. There is still so much hope. And there is still light.

Because somehow, simply by being in big sister Brandi’s room, I think we all managed to leave her presence feeling just a little bit “cool”er – and perhaps, even ready to take on the world.