On Indiana, Wilco and Jim Nabors

FreedomMost of the time, I just write about the music. It’s why you come here, so I’m aware I need to stay on topic. A few times over the years I’ve veered off course; most notably when a college student attending the University of Virginia went missing from a Metallica concert a few years back. As a parent, I found myself deeply affected by the anguish that Morgan Harrington’s family was going through, so I wrote an article about her, posted it here, and hoped for the best. The story was all over the news and social media. But I thought any additional exposure might be helpful – who knows, maybe there was a reader from Virginia who might have seen something or have information to share. I know, it was naive of me. But I had to say something.

Indiana. It’s been hard to miss the news about this state. They passed a law a few weeks ago. At first glance, it was not unlike a federal law passed by both the Democrats and Republicans back in the early 1990s called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. A bunch of other states have passed a version, too. (And like most laws, it’s complex and I’m not going to spend my time nor yours in explaining it here. Go forth and Google.)

What you need to know is that the Indiana legislature decided to add a little extra kick to their version of the RFRA, resulting in what would have amounted to permissible discrimination against people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. And, while the talking heads on cable news might make it sound like it’s about the right to not sell pizza that might be eaten at a gay wedding, or the right to refuse to bake a cake on which you have to write “Congratulations Carol and Anna” in frosting, because it goes against your religious beliefs, that’s the smoke and mirrors around the topic. The topic itself is singular: intolerance.

By now you probably know what happened. Titans of technology united with barons of business to stand up against discrimination. Cities and states quickly passed laws of their own condemning Indiana. There was talk that the NCAA might pull the Final Four tournament out of Indianapolis. And Wilco cancelled an upcoming show and issued this statement on their Facebook page:

“We are canceling our May 7 show at the Murat in Indianapolis. The ‘Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act’ feels like thinly disguised legal discrimination to us. Hope to get back to the Hoosier State someday soon, when this odious measure is repealed.”

There were a few other musicians who raised their voices as well. Can you guess who? Miley Cyrus was probably one of the most vocal on her Twitter account, and she publicly supported Wilco’s decision. REM’s Michael Stipe posted a video saying he loved the people of Indiana but the governor could go “F” himself. And in a letter to the Indianapolis Star, Indiana native John Mellencamp wrote:

“I am not questioning the sincerity of those who believe they have acted in the interests of religious freedom, but I am resolutely stating my opposition to this misnamed and ill-conceived law. It is discriminatory, hurtful, and a stain on Indiana’s national reputation.”

Mellencamp distanced himself from Wilco’s decision by adding that he would continue with planned shows in Indiana because he doesn’t want to let the government come between him and his fans from his native state. Meanwhile, a group of Indiana-based indie record labels (including Sufjan Stevens’ Asthmatic Kitty Records and members of the Secretly Group) signed a press release aligning themselves with civil liberties and the LGBT community but urging the artists not to cancel their scheduled live performances in order to achieve the abolition of the law:

“To musicians with events scheduled in Indiana – please follow through and perform. While canceling shows is one way to protest, a greater statement can be made by coming here and using your art to influence the policy debate that is occurring locally. You can insist that the venue you play publicly states that they will not discriminate under any circumstances. If the venue won’t do that, rebook your show with another venue that will. Your performance can be a rally. We need your support locally.”

So then, what about Wilco? Did they jump the gun or help further publicize the damage this law could have done? Seeing as, in a matter of days, the law was re-worked, and the governor of Arkansas chose not to sign a similar law there, it seems the voice of that band, along with all the others, was loud enough to be heard.

On April 3, Wilco took to Facebook again:

We consider the changes to Indiana’s RFRA a good first step toward creating the sort of welcoming environment we encourage everywhere, so we’re reinstating our May 7 show at The Murat, which we canceled earlier this week. To quote an Indiana University statement from yesterday, ‘religious liberty and equal protection under the law are both cornerstones of our democracy and they should not be in conflict with each other.’ Well said, IU.

While a small battle may have been won, victory for human rights is too far to view. Look no further than the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and contrast it with what’s been happening in Ferguson, MO, 51 years later: laws alone will not change people, their beliefs, or their actions. While public opinion has tilted in favor of supporting gay marriage and equality, and with the US Supreme Court expected to rule on those rights later this year, there will still remain a large group of people in America who will use whatever power they can to sway both the political and cultural opinion.

Of all that I have read or heard this past week, it was an op-ed piece in the Washington Post from the most unlikely person imaginable that I have found truly hopeful. Change comes incrementally, and here’s an example. This is what Arnold Schwarzenegger, the former Republican governor of California, wrote to his party:

“As an American, I’m incredibly concerned about what happened in Indiana this week and the threat of similar laws being passed in other states. As a Republican, I’m furious.

I know plenty of Republicans who are sensible and driven to solve problems for America. They believe in Reagan’s vision of a big tent where everyone is welcome. This message isn’t for them. It is for Republicans who choose the politics of division over policies that improve the lives of all of us. It is for Republicans who have decided to neglect the next generation of voters. It is for Republicans who are fighting for laws that fly in the face of equality and freedom.”

Should you have made it this far, it’s time for the music.

Back in the 1960s and ’70s, an actor from Alabama by the name of Jim Nabors portrayed the character Gomer Pyle, first on the Andy Griffith Show and then his own hit show. In addition to being a television star, he also had a deep baritone voice and released a number of albums, many that were full of spiritual songs. On January 15, 2013, one month after same-sex marriage became legal in Washington State, Nabors married his partner of 38 years, Stan Cadwallader, in Seattle.

Nabors is also well known for singing “Back Home Again in Indiana” prior to the start of the Indianapolis 500, held annually over the Memorial Day weekend. Except for a few absences due to health or other conflicts, he sang the unofficial Indiana anthem every year from 1972 until his final appearance there in 2014. Listen to the cheers as he’s announced. Watch the crowd give him a standing ovation at the end. Indiana is a state full of good people, in spite of the political and religious intolerance we witnessed that propelled them onto the front page.

It’s nice to know that Wilco will be there, too, so their voices and music can soar through the fear and hate.

This was originally published by No Depression, as an Easy Ed’s Broadside column.