About six years ago, I lost my uncle to colon cancer. Anyone who's experienced the death of a beloved family member knows the monster-bite wound that tears in your psyche.
Empathetic creatures that we aspire to be, however, humans don't always have to share a bond of blood with someone to feel the shock and pain of their passing. This kind of reflected sorrow can kick like a razor-hoofed mule, but ultimately, it reaffirms the kinship that unites us in a brotherhood that transcends race, creed or any of the other silly labels we use to pretend we're not fundamentally the same.
In the turbulent wake of the senseless shootings last week, even those of us with no connection to Mohammad Youssuf Abdulazeez or his victims are feeling some degree of loss. The whole city is reeling, and not just from the act itself, which would have been terrible and gut-wrenching no matter where it took place.
What bothers us most — if we're being honest with ourselves — is that it happened in Chattanooga, where many of us felt a misguided sense of disconnection and security from the uncertainty that breeds like rats in the aftermath of this kind of violence.
Right now, we're all feeling a little bit broken, a little bit staggered and exceptionally disillusioned. And as we work to knit ourselves together again and move forward, I think music can help soothe the bruises on our collective soul.
Few people are more aware of the therapeutic quality of music than performers, who experience its effects from both sides of the microphone.
"Listening to music can be a very solitary experience but there's something healing about it because it reminds us that we're not alone," says Gordy Quist, the lead singer of Austin, Texas-based rocker Band of Heathens, which will headline this week's Nightfall concert.
"That kind of bringing us together into one great, big soul of humanity and reminding us that we're part of something bigger — ultimately, that's one of the most powerful aspects of music."
The evening of the shootings, local musicians Heather and Travis Kilgore's band The Scarlet Love Conspiracy was scheduled to play a show at JJ's Bohemia. But at first, Travis says, they felt emotionally winded and considered canceling.
"I felt so defeated, to have such evil hit so close to home," he says. "I just wanted to curl up in a ball at home and just be afraid."
Instead, they laid into the fear and played it right to death.
"We had a wonderful night, we made new friends and without talking about it much at all, we acknowledged our fear and grief," he says. "And as we played, listened to [and] cheered for the music, we all felt a bit better about things."
Music is catharsis. No further analogy necessary. Plain and simple, it helps us to stare our emotions in the face, grapple with them and then either conquer them, embrace them or set them to the side.
During his eulogy for Rev. Clementa Pinckney — one of the nine victims of the June 17 mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C. — President Barack Obama broke into a rendition of the opening lines of "Amazing Grace." It was, without question, a moment that will define his presidency.
"Amazing Grace" was a choice that was as obvious as it was suited to the occasion. Like many hymns, it is so infused with a message of divine redemption that it can communicate the Christian ideals of hope and faith more effectively than all but the most ardently eloquent of preachers.
For all its air of spontaneity, the performance could have been a glorified stunt, and the singer's celebrity undoubtedly played a role in its reception. But the power of that song to bring an entire congregation to its feet in harmonic unity speaks to music's glorious ability to move us.
In the wake of 9/11, the entire country struggled to understand what could motivate such a brazen act of violence, and that quest stoked the patriotic fires in many. For much of the fall of 2001, a massive American flag dominated the back wall of Rhythm & Brews on loan from a band whose members asked to hang it there during a show the weekend after the attacks.
"What happened with that flag was amazing," recalls venue manager Mike Dougher. "If we did 40 bands in that period of time, 30 of them, at least, played the national anthem, [and] everybody in the place sang. It was special every night.
"Everybody's emotions were running so high that you had that sense of community in that small, little room. For the two and a half minutes or whatever it is, it was one voice, and it was really, really powerful. I'm proud of those times."
In my bleakest hours, music has always served as a kind of panacea — when relationships self-destructed, after my uncle's death or when I felt most lonely. It always helped to listen, whether by getting swept up in the energy of alt-country firebrands at JJ's Bohemia or tossing vinyl on the needle until the only beat I cared about was the one coming from the speaker instead of my heart.
Music is incredible that way. The three-minute wisdom of songs — the best ones — can buoy us and guide us through troubled times.
As you come to grips with the tragedy and start to move on, my advice is to seek the communal spirit that music is so adept at evoking. And as you do, keep in mind the inimitable words of Sir Elton John and Bernie Taupin: "It's times like these when we all need to hear the radio, 'cause from the lips of some old singer, we can share the troubles we already know."
Contact Casey Phillips at email@example.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.