Till death do us part

On the road with Steve Earle, Emmylou Harris and the Indigo Girls.

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Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium is a distinguished
building set slightly back from lower Broadway, a
once seedy, now gentrified, strip of bars and souvenir
shops, home to the Nascar Cafe, Planet Hollywood and, around
the corner, Hooters. But the venerable landmark stands
proud, its red brick exterior exuding an almost academic
authority. Once the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the
Ryman now feels haunted inside, its stage, wooden ceilings
and bench seats resonating with memories of country music
greats from decades past.

It was the perfect venue for roots singer/songwriter Steve
Earle’s April 12 benefit for “Journey of Hope,” an
anti-death penalty organization and one of Earle’s pet
causes. The organization — which includes Earle, playwright
Sam Shepard, whose mother was murdered, and Bud Welch, whose
daughter died in the Oklahoma City bombing — does speaking
tours of states where the issue is hot. (There will be a
similar small tour later this year in a yet-to-be determined
state.) Their recent two-week tour of Tennessee’s largest
cities was prompted by the impending execution of Robert Coe, which would be the state’s first since
1960. Joined by some of his good friends, including Emmylou
Harris (backed by Buddy and Julie Miller), Jackson Browne
and the Indigo Girls (with special guests the Dixie Chicks),
Earle and company performed acoustic numbers that were
somehow thematically linked to love, loss, hope and
forgiveness.

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In between sets, Earle introduced Sister Helen Prejean, a
high-spirited, articulate woman who brought onto the stage the “Journey of
Hope” participants, all of whom had lost
loved ones to murder or had family members on death row;
they introduced themselves and briefly told their
stories. “My father and I were stabbed in our home by
robbers,” said one young woman. “I lived; he didn’t.”
Inmates’ families recounted tales of mistaken accusations,
mental disability and simple love and remorse for kin whose
lives had gone horribly wrong. It was an incredibly powerful
moment as they joined hands in unity, both their pain and
their forgiveness palpable.

Meredith Ochs is a writer in New York.

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