“There's, I think, a spiritual connection. It's as close to magic as we can really get.”

On Monday (June 3), Rodney AtkinsMichael RayCarly PearceTyler RichFilmoreand Willie Jones helped kick off 2019 CMA Music Festival with a performance at Nashville’s Ascend Park for Music City Gives Back. Currently serving as a benefit for the W.O. Smith Music School that provides music lessons to students from low-income families, the event’s focus has evolved over time, yet has consistently been grounded in empathy. 

After the flood that ravaged Nashville in 2010, Atkins launched Music City Gives Back in 2011 as a way to recognize those who came from across state lines to help rebuild the city. “This began as a way to say thank you to other communities, other places around the country,” Atkins shares with Sounds Like Nashville. The following year, that token of gratitude expanded when the city of Nashville approached Atkins about using the event as a way to raise money for those impacted by devastating tornadoes in Tennessee, Joplin, Missouri and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. 

When Atkins learned of the W.O. Smith Music School, he shifted his sights to supporting the organization that offers $0.50 music classes to students age 7-18 who qualify for the USDA Free and Reduced Lunch Program. Each student selects an instrument and is taught by a volunteer teacher ranging from community members to artists and studio musicians. “I loved what that was,” Atkins says of the school’s mission. “I know music kept me out of trouble when I was a kid. Trying to learn how to make a D chord, you can’t think about much else.” 

As a first time participant, Music City Gives Back reminded Ray of the impact of music had on his life at a crucial time in his youth, helping him cope with his parents divorce when he was 8-years-old. “I think that when I’m able to be a part of these moments I can look at some of these kids or hear their stories and go ‘I’ve been there, you’re not alone,’” he explains. “We don’t know their individual world and what their individual brain’s thinking and music’s that outlet, music’s that voice that they don’t know they have. Music’s that inspiration that maybe inspires them to do something big and different.” 

The “One That Got Away” singer also recognizes that having access to instruments and music education can instill young people with the confidence to pursue their aspirations. “They’re changing kids lives because they don’t want anything in return, they just want to give. No matter what you’re going through, they want to be there, and I think that’s so inspiring,” says Ray about what he admires in the school. “To think that almost 10 years of being able to do this and how many kids they’ve impacted, they probably don’t even realize what they’ve done for these children. They’re making a big mark on our future.”

The event also brings to mind personal memories for Atkins. Before his days as a hit making country star, he served as a counselor at Woodland Residential Center, where adolescents were taken after they’d been arrested for a serious crime. Many would try to physically break out of the establishment, landing them in lock-down. That’s when Atkins stepped in with his guitar and provided music therapy for the teens. “It was like magic, slowly watching how they would forget why they were mad and start asking me questions,” he recalls of the power of music in those moments. “There’s, I think, a spiritual connection. It’s as close to magic as we can really get.”

Grace Jones