Songwriter Harlan Howard said it best: “Country music is three chords and the truth.” Out of that simple formula has come a genre that defines the Nashville sound and its worldwide community of listeners. Where the only cure for a broken heart is to sing about it. Where tractors and trucks are the transportation of choice. Where “I should have been a cowboy” and “I’m so lonesome I could cry” are common refrains. Where family values are prized above all else.
Country music is about place (“Amarillo by Morning,” “Okie from Muskogee,” “Chattahoochee,” “Rocky Top”), and no place has loomed larger than Nashville, the site where it all began. But more than 100 years before a WSM radio announcer dubbed the town “Music City USA,” Nashville was known as the “Athens of the South,” the first Southern city to establish a public school system and the home to many colleges and universities, including Vanderbilt and its Medical Center.
Nashville was built on both entertainment and education, and today, more than ever, the industries are creating a two-part harmony with a common bass line: a love for community.
Many in country music consider Vanderbilt University Medical Center their “community hospital,” a place that offers world-class health care, whether it’s for a routine checkup or a family member’s serious illness. In return for that care, they offer their time and talents in support of the Medical Center’s mission, and they do so with a humility not always found in other genres of the entertainment industry.
“It’s such a great feeling when we visit the hospital—one of the best in the world,” says Scott Borchetta, president and CEO of Big Machine Label Group, home to artists like Taylor Swift, Reba McEntire and Garth Brooks.
“One day one of us will get sick or get diagnosed, and we know Vanderbilt will be there for us,” he continues. “We feel like we can’t do enough and are honored to be part of the family.”
With more than 20 years in Nashville’s entertainment industry, Borchetta has been a longtime supporter of Vanderbilt, but his relationship intensified in 2010 when Rascal Flatts, a country supergroup with a longstanding commitment to the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, signed to the Big Machine record label.
Rascal Flatts has raised more than $3 million for the Children’s Hospital, hosted benefit concerts, filmed advocacy messages, performed private shows for patients and families, and offered countless hugs and photo ops.
“Seeing those kids, and being face to face with the people who you directly impact, makes all the early mornings and late flights and touring worthwhile,” says Rascal Flatts bassist Jay DeMarcus.
In November 2010, Children’s Hospital unveiled its Rascal Flatts Surgery Center, which houses existing surgical programs and will soon hold a state-of-the-art interventional radiology suite.
“It’s amazing what they do here every day. They’re able to take the most serious situations and turn them into a positive,” says Joe Don Rooney, the band’s lead guitarist and vocalist. “That’s why we knew very quickly that we wanted to be involved with Children’s Hospital. It’s a magical place.”
“This is the biggest accomplishment of our entire personal or professional careers, being a part of this hospital,” adds lead singer Gary LeVox.
Dr. John W. Brock III, BA’74, Children’s Hospital surgeon-in-chief, Monroe Carell Jr. Chair, and director of the Division of Pediatric Urology, says the Rascal Flatts Surgery Center will allow the hospital to provide minimally invasive procedures that weren’t possible before.
“Rascal Flatts really is not in this for publicity,” he asserts. “They’re in it because it’s the right thing to do. I have great respect for them and think they have great respect for what we do here.”
Last Halloween, when Rascal Flatts visited the hospital, says Brock, “they didn’t leave until they went to every single room. Even though it took three times as long as they had planned, they wouldn’t leave until they had seen everyone. That’s a pretty amazing thing.”
Though Brock has forged a special relationship with the members of Rascal Flatts through the years, he sees their commitment reflected in many others in Nashville’s music industry.
“So many great people from country music have really embraced what we do. They have given their time to come here and sing and be with the children, and I’m continually amazed at the level of commitment, their soul. It’s not just a front for them,” says Brock.
Big Machine sends artists to Children’s Hospital each month to perform for patients and families.
“You always see a spirit of life in the kids. They’re so brave and tackle their illnesses so seriously,” Borchetta says. “Kids aren’t supposed to be sick. It’s a mess-up in the system, and we can’t do enough to make it right. We always walk out of the hospital asking, ‘How can we do more?’”
Rondal Richardson, entertainment industry relations manager for VUMC, says Big Machine and others in country music understand that music is a healer.
“These artists can’t cure cancer, but they can let patients know they are supported by a special community,” he says. “Music City USA has a great medical center that believes in the premise that music heals the mind, body and soul.”
Richardson has more than 25 years’ experience in the entertainment industry and helps strengthen relations between VUMC and professionals in music, athletics and performing arts. As an industry insider, he understands how precious an artist’s time is, but also how much they want to give.
“In any given week in a manager’s office in Nashville, they could get 100 requests for charity events. Learning to say no to something that is so worthy is really tough,” Richardson says.
Especially in country music, he says, artists see their fans as an extension of their families and will do just about anything to help them. “To whom much is given, much is expected, and there’s a sense that this is a beautiful family that doesn’t exist in any other form of entertainment.”
Richardson says it’s that love for family and community that draws them to Vanderbilt.
“They understand that health is one’s most important asset in life. They want to do something beyond music and give back to the people who have given them so much. Many of them really find their missions through charity work, and we’re blessed that so many of them have chosen Vanderbilt.”
Vanderbilt shone brightly in the national spotlight during the 46th Academy of Country Music Awards, broadcast last April. Hootie and the Blowfish alum and country music artist Darius Rucker took the stage with 25 young adults who have developmental disabilities to perform “Music from the Heart,” and viewers were given the opportunity to donate to the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center.
The song was a product of the ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp held each summer at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for people with Williams syndrome, autism and other disabilities. The song was written collectively at the camp with songwriters Brett James and Chris Young.
“The ACM Lifting Lives performance with the Kennedy Center campers was honestly one of the top musical moments of my career,” says Rucker. “Singing on stage with them, watching their faces and hearing their voices is a moment I’ll always remember.”
Lifting Lives is the Academy of Country Music’s philanthropic arm, dedicated to improving lives through the power of music, and has sponsored the Kennedy Center’s Music Camp since 2010.
The weeklong residential camp gives young adults who have developmental disabilities the opportunity to participate in songwriting workshops, recording sessions, and a live performance at the Grand Ole Opry. Country music veterans who have participated in the camp include Darius Rucker, Carrie Underwood, Gary Allan, Odie Blackmon, Mark Bright, Little Big Town and Wynonna Judd.
“Being part of the ACM Lifting Lives camp at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center last summer was one of those inspiring moments that comes along only once in a rare while,” says Judd. “The campers lifted my spirits and restored my hope in humanity. The impact of the great work happening at the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center around the idea of ‘music as a healer’ is something I am proud to celebrate. It is indeed proof that when we stand together, it is our finest hour.”
Much of today’s support for the Children’s Hospital can be traced back to one man: Kix Brooks, half of country superstar duo Brooks & Dunn.
“He was the first to get down on the floor with the kids, and then he told all his peers,” says Rondal Richardson. “He was the Pied Piper for that place. Everyone followed him in, and thankfully no one has wanted to leave.”
Back in the early ’90s, when Brooks & Dunn was headlining its first concert at Nashville’s Starwood Amphitheater, two industry veterans—song publisher Donna Hilley and Connie Bradley from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP)—contacted Brooks and requested he donate all the concert proceeds to the Children’s Hospital.
Brooks admits he was flabbergasted. Like many, he had bought into the false notion of the “Magnolia Curtain” cutting off Vanderbilt from the wider Nashville community.
“Like many people with no knowledge of the place, when you hear the word ‘Vanderbilt,’ you generally assume here’s a place with plenty of money that serves those in Nashville who can afford it, and a place that certainly wouldn’t be needing a donation from somebody like me,” recalls Brooks.
But Hilley and Bradley encouraged him to visit the hospital, then housed on three cramped floors in Vanderbilt University Hospital.
What he found, Brooks says, “was a hospital that was extremely overcrowded and, quite frankly, threadbare—with a dream in the air of a new facility that had been promised for the near future, and a staff of doctors and nurses who were working in very tough conditions with an attitude that made me embarrassed I would ever complain about anything. They were putting smiles on the faces of some very sick kids and putting hope in the hearts of their parents.”
Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital, Brooks soon realized, “was not the pretentious, exclusive establishment I had conjured up in my mind, but a nonprofit hospital, made for the everyday families of not just Tennessee but all the bordering states and beyond—and no child was being turned away because they couldn’t pay.”
For Brooks, it was a moment of revelation: “Wow, I thought. I’ve got to do my part. This isn’t their hospital—this is our hospital.”
All the proceeds from that sellout concert were given to the hospital, and shortly afterward, Brooks joined the hospital’s board of directors, on which he still serves today.
“I am very proud of the progress we’ve made between Music Row and the hospital, but we have to keep growing this mission,” he says. “Honestly, it all comes back to the hope in a child’s eyes, knowing they are counting on us to help them get well. It is a giant responsibility, and one we have to embrace. I can’t think of anything more important, and with all sincerity, I feel privileged for the opportunity.”
In addition to Rascal Flatts, one of Brooks’ early followers was Dierks Bentley, BA’97, whose annual Miles and Music for Kids celebrity motorcycle ride and concert is one of Children’s Hospital’s more visible entertainment events. Now being duplicated in other cities, it has attracted 36,000 fans and raised more than $2 million for Children’s Miracle Network hospitals.
Brooks also connected with Steve Moore, CEO of the Country Music Association (CMA), the genre’s trade organization. He is personally committed to Children’s Hospital through the Shalom Foundation, a charitable organization he founded to serve children and families living in extreme poverty, with a special focus on Guatemala.
“God picked Guatemala for me,” Moore declares. “I went there on a construction trip through my church to build a school. Then when I saw the Children’s Hospital for the first time and walked through it, it ached me that kids in Guatemala would never see a facility like that.”
After meeting Dr. John Brock, the two forged a relationship to send surgical teams to Guatemala, a project that grew to demand a permanent surgical facility there. Earlier this year a Vanderbilt team helped open the Moore Pediatric Surgery Center, a 2,000-square-foot structure equipped for medical and surgical care with three operating rooms and beds for pre-operation, intensive care and recovery.
“The staff at Vanderbilt was instrumental in consulting on the needs and specifications and even giving some financial assistance to getting the facility open. Great nurses and doctors have gone on our trips, and Vanderbilt is a great partner for Shalom,” says Moore.
“We really have a chance to live out part of Chancellor Zeppos’ vision for ‘one Vanderbilt’” through the endeavors in Guatemala, Brock points out. “Guatemala is a natural fit because we’re so involved with Vanderbilt’s Center for Latin American Studies and with medical care. How we marry those two together gives us a true ‘one Vanderbilt’ presence, and we couldn’t have done some of that without Steve.”
Now Moore is encouraging all CMA members to lend their support to Vanderbilt.
“Country music artists are giving people with big hearts, so it doesn’t surprise me a bit that so many of them support Vanderbilt and the Children’s Hospital,” Moore says. “I would, of course, like to see more get involved, though.
“In doing so, you get more than you’re giving, and the reward is beyond measure, especially when you’re working with children. Artists know they have been really blessed with talent and resources in their career, and they look to do something meaningful and give back.”
Leslie Hill is an information officer for Vanderbilt University Medical Center News and Communications.
© 2015 Vanderbilt University | Photography: DANA JOHNSON, JOE HOWELL, ANNE RAYNER, SUSAN URMY, KEVIN WINTER/GETTY IMAGES FOR ACM, TOMMY LAWSON, MARY DONALDSON, CMA, JOHN RUSSELL, JOE HOWELL
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Well, I blew my throat and I blew my tour
I wound up sippin’ on soup du jour
I wasn’t Superman, I wasn’t Superman
Try to do more than I can
I wasn’t Superman
Well, the doctor said, Son, it’s a cryin’ shame
But you ain’t Clark Kent and I ain’t Lois Lane
Willie Nelson wrote those lyrics to his song “Superman” about the time his Vanderbilt doctor, Gaelyn Garrett, took him off a tour to rest his voice. But Nelson is just one name among a long list of famous voices who have sought treatment at Vanderbilt’s Voice Center. The center has helped singers like Johnny Cash (a longtime supporter of the center), Minnie Pearl, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, Emmylou Harris, Jack White, Trisha Yearwood, Martina McBride, Ronnie Dunn, Pam Tillis, Wynonna Judd and Gretchen Wilson—as well as preachers, radio personalities, auctioneers and businessmen.
Gold and platinum records line the familiar hallways of the Voice Center—a sign of appreciation from Music City’s singers for successful treatment.
Dr. Gaelyn Garrett, medical director of the Vanderbilt Voice Center, with music artist and patient Gary Allan.
“I think every musician who lives in town knows about the Vanderbilt Voice Center,” says country rocker Gary Allan, who was treated last year for a vascular polyp. “It is a fantastic marriage for Music City to have a voice clinic. People fly in from all over the world.”
Founded in 1987 and consistently ranked among the best by U.S. News and World Report, Vanderbilt’s Department of Otolaryngology, which houses the Voice Center, is placed among the top 10 in National Institutes of Health funding, with more than $10 million in grants. The department’s “founding four” physicians—Executive Director Robert Ossoff, James Duncavage, James Netterville and David Zealear—are still active full-time faculty members.
Ossoff’s 1994–95 trainee, Dr. Gaelyn Garrett, is now medical director of the center. Garrett has treated not only high-profile patients like Willie Nelson and Gary Allan, but other members of Nashville’s singing population, from Music Row and Vanderbilt’s Blair School of Music to the Belmont University School of Music and Fisk Jubilee Singers, an African American a cappella ensemble of Fisk University students.
Allan is treated by Garrett and Thomas Cleveland, professor of otolaryngology.
“Singers have everything from a little swelling of the vibrating edge to nodules to polyps to cysts,” she says.
Patients receive the same level of care whether they are singers or teachers or call-center employees. As part of their treatment, patients see a speaking or singing therapist at the Voice Center in order to help change the behaviors that caused the problem.
In some cases, singers may have had a pre-existing lesion that actually helped create what is known as their ‘signature sound,’ so even more important is having a baseline examination to view the vocal cords before a problem exists.
“A baseline exam lets us know what the vocal cords look like, and if the patient does end up developing a problem down the road, we will be able to say what is new and what is not,” says Garrett. “In an ideal world, it would be great if every new singer came to us and got this first evaluation so we’d know where we were starting.”