For as long as humans have used music to communicate, we’ve also used it as a platform to express opinions or support pet causes. That can be risky, however — even more so in the age of social media, when an offhand comment can derail a career faster than you can say Dixie Chicks. But if there’s one cause that’s “safe” — one that might even help an artist win more fans — it’s … pets.
“It’s not political at all,” says longtime animal advocate Emmylou Harris. “Dog lovers are everywhere, regardless of party.”
Harris has raised thousands of dollars for animal rescue since opening her small rescue, Bonaparte’s Retreat, in 2004, but during September’s AmericanaFest in Nashville, she stepped up her efforts by partnering for the first time with LiveNation to present Woofstock at the city’s Ascend Amphitheater. In addition to headliner Harris, the 5½-hour concert featured animal-lovers Jamey Johnson, John Hiatt & the Goners, Margo Price, Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel, John Paul White, the Lone Bellow, Ashley Monroe and Ida Mae, all of whom donated their time. Harris’ goal is to create an annual event pegged to AmericanaFest, like a smaller-scale Farm Aid.
During Miranda Lambert’s 2018 Bandwagon and Livin’ Like Hippies tours, she collected food, toys and cash donations for local shelters at nearly every stop, boosting totals by giving donors a chance to win a meet ‘n’ greet with her. MuttNation Foundation, the nonprofit Lambert and her mother, Beverly, formed in 2009, orchestrated the “Fill the Little Red Wagon” initiative. Since 2016, Lambert also has held adoption events at Nashville’s CMA Fest, using the June gathering to arrange over 150 adoptions of shelter dogs — 56 this year alone.
They’re among the most high-profile artists using their platform to encourage adopting animals instead of buying from breeders, but as more shelters try to reach no-kill status — meaning at least 90 percent of the animals taken in leave alive, whether reunited with owners, adopted by new ones or sent to rescue groups and fosters — that bandwagon continues to grow.
OK Go, a band renowned as much for its wildly creative videos as its rhythm-happy pop tunes, jumped aboard in 2010, with its “White Knuckles” video. The 3½-minute video, shot in one long take, features the four bandmates doing a series of stunts with 14 dogs (and one goat), all of whom were rescues. They took the opportunity to direct attention — and donations — to animal rescue, specifically avoiding working with dogs “tied to the glamour-dog industry,” says frontman Damian Kulash. “The idea of paying tons of money for breeder dogs when there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of dogs that get put down every year because they don’t have anyone to love them, is just super sad to me.”
They knew their enormously popular videos had monetary value because they’d attracted sponsors for several, Kulash says, so they decided, “Why not give that value to a cause we care about, one that’s associated with the video?”
Money from download purchases went to the ASPCA for rural animal shelters; the end frame also carried this message and a web link: “These dogs were lucky to find loving homes, but many others are still waiting. Help us support animal rescue efforts at the ASPCA.” On YouTube alone, the video has been viewed almost 24.5 million times.
Based on available statistics, the ASPCA estimates about 1.5 million animals — 670,000 dogs and 860,000 cats — are euthanized annually in America’s shelters. If 1.5 million of OK Go’s video viewers became first-time adopters in the next year, they could, theoretically, eliminate euthanasia of homeless pets.
Of course, the math is far more complicated, and conquering animal homelessness also requires outreach about spaying and neutering, plus providing free or low-cost services to remove economic barriers. Recruiting foster families is also important, because the stress of shelter life negatively impacts behavior and therefore, adoption odds, and every animal exiting the shelter makes room available for the next one in.
But these and other artists’ efforts are making a difference. “[Nashville has] made incredible progress since I started in 2004, when the euthanasia rate was up in the 80th percentile,” says Harris, who pulls bigger, older, harder-to-rehome animals from the city’s Metro Animal Care and Control. This year, Woofstock benefited her rescue and Crossroads, which gives young people aging out of the foster system opportunities to care for adoptable animals while learning job skills in its pet retail store and dog grooming facility.
“We’re working to help homelessness with dogs and cats and also young people, giving them the chance to find their bliss, and be a part of the community,” says Harris, who serves on the board. She’s already planning to add more rescue groups next year, and hold an afternoon adoption event; the 6,800-capacity amphitheater is conveniently attached to a dog park.
For Harris, Lambert and Kulash, success would mean no potentially adoptable shelter animal ever has to run out of time.
“As long as one dog or cat is put down,” Harris says, “it’s one too many.”