When Catie Curtis learned about a special project that would help Americans United spread its message to a new audience, she just couldn’t say no.
“I want everyone who cares about church-state separation to know about and support the work that AU is doing,” she told Church & State. “I think there are so many folks out there who are concerned about reproductive freedom and marriage equality, for example, and who would love to support AU in what they are doing on the front lines, standing up for individuals and also working on a legislative level. They just have to become aware of AU.”
Curtis, a Boston-area singer-songwriter with a dozen albums to her credit, including 2011’s “Stretch Limousine On Fire,” has been spearheading a first-of-its-kind performance series called “Voices United for Separation of Church and State,” which will feature house concerts and live events in all 50 states from Sept. 28 – Oct. 1.
Since early March, Voices United has consumed “countless” hours of Curtis’ time and has been “the biggest puzzle” the winner of the 2006 International Songwriting Competition has ever put together, she said. At press time, Voices United consisted of more than 100 different acts scheduled in 60-plus concerts in 47 states.
Along with Americans United’s Development and Field departments, Curtis has “connected with longtime AU supporters, with music fans and with friends of friends who were willing to say ‘I’ll do it’” to make the event a reality.
“So I’m on the phone,” she said. “I’m emailing folks, I’m shaking the trees.”
The idea for Voices United came from the mind of Barry W. Lynn, Americans United executive director and a long-time lover of folk music. While surveying the American social and political landscape in November 2011, he was struck by the constant and unrelenting threats to religious liberty from the Religious Right and its allies.
Lynn was disturbed to see politicians increasingly use religious rhetoric to appeal to voters, to the point that it seemed some were running for pastor of their local church rather than a government office. He was outraged that elected officials were being pressured to base health care and other governmental policies on religious doctrine instead of the public good.
Lynn also noted that well-funded sectarian lobbies are trying to define civil marriage and family law according to narrow religious dogma even though it excludes millions of Americans. Religious Right forces are attempting to turn churches into a partisan political machine, the public school system is under attack by those who wish to indoctrinate children and interest groups are seeking taxpayer dollars to fund religious schools and discriminatory social service ministries.
Given this turbulent landscape that threatens the very core of church-state separation, Lynn decided a dramatic attention-getting move was in order. He came to the conclusion that a concert would be an effective way to raise awareness of AU’s issues, and the months before the 2012 elections would be just the right time for such an event.
“Singers, songwriters and performers have always been a powerful force for justice in America,” Lynn told Church & State. “It would be hard to imagine the civil rights movement, the anti-Vietnam-War effort or the women’s equality movement without the soundtrack that played – and continues to play – such an important role. Given the role that music can play in bringing about social change, a concert seemed like the perfect way to advance AU’s cause.”
Lynn first thought a single concert in a major city would be the most feasible until he spoke to John Jennings, a well-known guitarist and producer, in November 2011. Over lunch, Lynn ran his idea by Jennings, who has produced or performed on albums by Mary Chapin Carpenter, the Indigo Girls, Cheryl Wheeler, George Jones and many others.
Jennings thought Lynn was on to something – but felt the scope could be much, much bigger.
According to Lynn, Jennings said lots of organizations put on benefit concerts, so if Americans United really wanted to make an impact, it should schedule concerts in every state.
“I was initially shocked at the possibility,” Lynn said. “How could this be done? I know a lot of people care about this, but how could we do this many events during the same weekend?”
Lynn quickly saw, however, that his fears were unfounded. At Jennings’ suggestion, he attended a conference for singers and songwriters in Memphis in January 2012 to get a sense of the interest level for Voices United.
What became apparent, Lynn said, was that there was a “huge amount of interest.”
As he continued making the rounds for speaking engagements throughout the United States in the early months of this year and he told more and more people about the proposed concert series, it became increasingly clear that both musicians and other supporters of church-state separation were enthusiastic.
“Everywhere I went lots of people, including AU members, came up to me and said they really liked the idea of Voices United,” Lynn said. “There was widespread support for us to do it.”
With interest established, Lynn needed someone in the music industry to coordinate concerts in all the states. Enter Curtis, who knew Jennings and whom Lynn had met via Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays and through a previous event cosponsored by Americans United called, “Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Separation of Church and State…But Were Afraid to Ask.”
“Catie has such goodwill among people in both the music business and the marriage-equality movement,” Lynn said. “She is the perfect combination of music and social justice.”
Lynn also knew that Curtis was looking to tour a bit less so she could spend more time with her children, and this could be the right moment to catch her.
“Barry called to ask me if I knew anyone who could produce a benefit concert in every state, and I knew immediately that I wanted to be the one to do it,” Curtis said.
Lynn wasn’t surprised.
“I knew instinctively her answer would be ‘yes’ when I asked her to take on this project,” he said.
Thanks to Curtis’ dedication over the last six months –“The amount of work she does in just one week is tremendous,” Lynn said – Voices United boasts a wide range of performers. This line-up includes blues artist Guy Davis, who has appeared on “Late Night With Conan O’Brien” and Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”; folk artists like Mary Gauthier, who has been making music for six decades – her second album, “Drag Queens in Limousines,” earned a four-star rating from Rolling Stone – and Ellis Paul, whom director Peter Farrelly (of the Farrelly Brothers) called “a national treasure.”
Other participating artists are multi-genre, like Natalia Zukerman, who blends blues, jazz, bluegrass and folk music and has toured in almost every state as well as in Canada, the Netherlands, Germany and Japan.
“I love all that AU stands for, and I love rallying people to a common cause,” Curtis said. “I just started reaching out to everyone I knew. After touring for 18 years, that’s a lot of people.”
Two major celebrity comedians, Sarah Silverman and Russell Brand, also signed on to help spread AU’s message. Silverman has written for and appeared on “Saturday Night Live,” been a guest on shows including “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and produced, starred in and wrote for “The Sarah Silverman Program” on Comedy Central from 2007 to 2010. (For a Q & A with Silverman, see “Sarah Silverman: I Want America Back” on page 9.)
Brand has starred in many films including “Forgetting Sarah Marshall,” “Get Him to the Greek” and “Rock of Ages,” and he stars in his own show, “BrandX with Russell Brand,” on FX Networks.
Both Brand and Silverman will be performing at the Voices United closing event in Los Angeles at the El Ray Theatre on Oct. 1 along with Curtis and Gauthier.
Thanks to Jennings, events at larger venues are also being planned. In Nashville, Tenn., Grammy winner Don Henry and folk/country singer Gretchen Peters are scheduled to appear. A concert in New York City is being finalized as well.
“We are delighted that so many diverse singers and entertainers are stepping up to focus attention on basic constitutional principles and the bedrock American values of fairness, equality and justice,” he said. “They are all truly ‘voices united for separation of church and state.’”
The tag line for Voices United is “Take a Seat. Make a Stand,” and if anyone is making a stand for church-state separation, it is Guy Davis, who is performing at the Voices United concert in Montgomery, Ala., on Sept. 28. That event will be hosted by Morris Dees, co-founder and chief trial attorney of the Southern Poverty Law Center, and his wife, Susan Starr.
Historically, Alabama doesn’t have the best record on church-state matters, but that doesn’t worry Davis.
“If I look at it historically – that it’s difficult for people to change – I’d say it’s almost ironic [to have a concert like this in Montgomery],” Davis told Church & State. “But people can change, and they can grow. The world is changing, not because of revolution but because of evolution.”
Davis also said he is proud to stand up with Americans United and its cause.
“It’s a matter of lending my voice to something that’s worthy,” he said. “I’ve got friends and family who are the whole spectrum of religious beliefs. I think we need to hear that there is no one way of living that is more valid than any other.”
Curtis has been awed by the attitude of Davis and others who are willing to participate in areas that can be hostile to church-state separation.
“I am really touched by the folks in conservative areas who are hosting a concert despite the possible negative repercussions in their communities,” she said. “I’m not surprised, but inspired by their courage.”
Ultimately Curtis, who wrote and recorded a promotional theme song for Voices United and is performing in Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Ohio in addition to California, hopes her hard work will get the word out about Americans United.
In addition to the satisfaction of spreading AU’s message, Curtis said she is really enjoying the entire process of putting this event together.
“I have loved connecting with so many talented people and setting up these musical events for folks to enjoy,” she said. “I just know that when late September comes around, it’s going to be very exciting to think of all these concerts taking place at the same time. I am going to wish I could be at all of them.”
And when this is all over, is Curtis ready for “Voices United: 2013 Edition”?
“Um, let’s talk in October,” she said.
For more information on Voices United, including a complete list of performers and venues, visit: voicesunitedconcerts.com/