Special Report: After The Flood

Videos by American Songwriter

“You could see the waterline, like eight feet of water in the house – you just had to gut the whole house. Sheetrock, insulation – all the way up to the ceiling. It was the weirdest thing, seeing hardwood floors just buckled.”

Country singer Jason Jones is sitting in a bar in Nashville, talking about the aftermath of the May flood that devastated Music City, leaving nine dead, thousands of homes destroyed and more than a billion dollars in damage to businesses and infrastructure. He drops the medallion of St. Christopher – the patron saint of travelers and floods – that he’s been absentmindedly fidgeting with and forms his arms into a decidedly unfloorlike shape.

Jones was lucky. He and his band had been on the road playing a show in Missouri when the 17 inches of rain came down. Fortunately, his home in the Donelson neighborhood was relatively unscathed. Twelve hours of Shop-Vac-ing seems like a blessing when the Grand Old Opry—also a resident of that part of town – was under 46 inches of water. So Jones did what many in the music community did: He joined a crew to help start with recovery as soon as he could.

Jones worked in demolition and organizing water distribution to hundreds of volunteers – a vital function given that devastated areas had no running water and those that did were severely restricted due to a failed treatment plant. He, like so many others, was amazed by the sudden outpouring of caring and support at the moment when many needed it most.

As the Tallahassee, Florida, native waxes poetic about the character and strength of his adopted city, across town at the Bridgestone Arena – home of the NHL’s Nashville Predators – the biggest names in country music are sound-checking. It’s the night of the sold-out star studded Nashville Rising benefit show, the latest event in a string of many in which Nashville A-listers – Faith Hill, Taylor Swift, Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, serious heavyweights with serious pull – do what they do best to support the city that launched their careers.

Vince Gill – who lost a priceless collection of swoon-worthy rare and vintage guitars when Soundcheck, the rehearsal space where he stored them, flooded – had booked a telethon before the waters of the Cumberland and Harpeth rivers even receded. And these concerts were in addition to personal contributions like the $500,000 Ms. Swift threw down almost immediately.

And that’s how it went across the city – from the smallest coffee shop writer’s round to the biggest stars in the genre, almost all of Nashville became refocused on the flood. Even musicians that lost everything – like local rock outfit, The Running, who had left their gear in their drummer’s car after a late night gig only to wake up the next morning to find the river had swallowed it – were back in the clubs by week’s end, playing on borrowed equipment and raising money for flood victims.

Nashville is a showbiz town and – as trite as it may sound – the show must go on. As a friend of mine pointed out at an early flood benefit, if we don’t keep playing shows, then the torrential downpours win. And while it was a rarity for Nashville’s sprawling and diverse music scene to have a singularity of purpose, no one was forgetting that truly important things had been lost beyond Wynona Judd’s bison and countless, vintage instruments.

“There was one point when I walked into a back room and there were a couple of different papers that you could see. They were wet and you could tell [the homeowners] left them to dry out… It was an honorable discharge from the military, from the Vietnam War. He’d been wounded in the war.” Jones’s medallion catches the light as he leans in, earnest and amazed, in awe of the human kindness and devastation that he was witness to.

“This man, that might be the last thing she’s got to remember him by, ya know. A high school diploma, things like that, things that are important things. The things you can’t get back.”

Jones echoes a general feeling within the community that no benefit show or Internet single can ever replace a lifetime of mementos, but a community-wide commitment to rebuilding and remaining strong in the face adversity can help ease the pain and start down a road toward building new memories.

“Just to help somebody else… the spirit of the volunteers, the volunteerism – it was amazing. Just hundreds of people every day out there walking around in the sun. Not eating, not drinking anything, just helping other people. It’s amazing to see that and a good thing to know there’s that kind of good people around here.” Jones lights up as he echoes another statement on the lips of all of Nashville in the aftermath of this once-in-a-century tragedy. “It made me really proud to be a resident.”

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