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Musicians use rhythm and harmony to heal America's toxic divide

Ray Benson, longtime leader of the Western swing group Asleep at the Wheel, in concert at the Palace Theatre in Corsicana, Texas, on Dec. 9, 2022. He says he steers clear of politics on stage because "now it's totally toxic."
Ben Torres for NPR
Ray Benson, longtime leader of the Western swing group Asleep at the Wheel, in concert at the Palace Theatre in Corsicana, Texas, on Dec. 9, 2022. He says he steers clear of politics on stage because "now it's totally toxic."

It's a chilly night in the Texas Hill Country, but inside the Arcadia Theater in the town of Kerrville there is a blithe spirit afoot. The crowd is swaying to Miles and Miles of Texas played by Asleep at The Wheel, the Grammy-winning Western Swing band.

The audience is a mélange of cowboy hats and tattoos, rural folks and urbanites. And everybody seems to be getting along. These days, as polarization reaches deep into American life, some musicians are trying to stay out of the fray and use their music to bridge divides.

A country & western musician has to walk a fine line these days to stay out of trouble.

"Six years ago, it wasn't so bad," says Ray Benson, the guitar-slinging, white-bearded, longtime leader of Asleep at The Wheel. "Four years ago it started gettin' weird. Now it's totally toxic. And it's all about social media, because that's where all the trolls are, that's where all the nutbars are."

Benson happens to be a hardcore Democrat. But unlike openly progressive stars like the Chicks or Bonnie Rait, he doesn't strut his politics onstage. He figures his audiences are split down the middle: half blue, half red. The Wheel — which celebrated its 50th anniversary last year — tries to stay in the middle of the road. They've proudly played the inaugurations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

"It's a big problem if you take one side or the other in this really divided information society," says Benson, 71.

He learned what happens if he pops off on social media.

Ray Benson, bandleader of Asleep at the Wheel, which has played inaugurations of four U.S. presidents — Democrats and Republicans. He tries to keep the band out of polarized politics.
/ Ben Torres for NPR
/
Ben Torres for NPR
Ray Benson, bandleader of Asleep at the Wheel, which has played inaugurations of four U.S. presidents — Democrats and Republicans. He tries to keep the band out of polarized politics.
The Grammy-winning Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.
/ Ben Torres for NPR
/
Ben Torres for NPR
The Grammy-winning Western swing band, Asleep at the Wheel, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

"Call Donald Trump's followers a cult and his followers don't take it lightly. 'A cult! You callin' me a cult?! That's the end, I'll never listen to you again! And screw your radio show, too!' "

Benson and many other bandleaders have taken the age-old advice, "Shut up and sing." More than a dozen working musicians approached for this story — both liberals and conservatives — forcefully declined to participate. Said one Dallas promoter incredulously, "Why would we want to alienate our audience?"

Better to let the music be an oasis from the acrimony, says Mike Blakely, a Hill Country singer/songwriter who was at the Kerrville show.

"I know a lot of people in my audience," he says, standing in the lobby. "And I know who voted this way and who voted that way. And they're out there in the same audience, shakin' hands and dancin' and singin' along. So music is the escape from all that. It takes the politics and religion and disagreements out of all sorts of things."

The same can be said whether it's a six-string guitar or an 11-string oud, which is an Arabic lute.

Mahmoud Chouki is a virtuoso multi-instrumentalist who plays music from his native Morocco blended with influences from Southern Spain, the Middle East, Latin America and American jazz. His instruments include classical guitar, oud, banjo and the Algerian mandole. He lives in New Orleans and plays engagements around the world.

During the pandemic, Chouki took a road trip across the country playing wherever he could, in his mind serving as a sort-of ambassador for Saharan Africa. As an immigrant bringing his exotic-sounding music to taverns and house concerts, Chouki, 38, says he, too, has felt this national dyspepsia in America.

"If you are not with me, you are against me, so we can't be just friends if we have different political ideas and beliefs," he says. "And that's kind of really sad to see that."

Chouki says most people were friendly and welcoming on his cross-country adventure. But with his thick accent and great mane of black hair, he says he could feel his other-ness. He says he met a woman in Virginia who, after a few beers, told him, " 'I like you, but I hope you're not a terrorist.' Then I told her, 'Yea, I am actually, but I'm on vacation now.' After that, the whole conversation changed completely."

With his spidery fingers dancing across the fretless oud, Chouki figures the best he can do is offer a kind of music therapy.

"When I play my music I feel no difference, I feel no political opinion," he says. "I feel people have a moment to enjoy and to listen. And I'm very grateful to do that."

Mahmoud Chouki, a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist from Morocco, performed at the Historic New Orleans Collection's concert, "La Noche Buena: Spanish Christmas Music of the New World," at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, on Dec. 15, 2022. Chouki says he plays music to transcend polarization: "When I play my music I feel no difference, no politics. ... People have a moment to enjoy, to listen."
/ Leslie Gamboni for NPR
/
Leslie Gamboni for NPR
Mahmoud Chouki, a virtuosic multi-instrumentalist from Morocco, performed at the Historic New Orleans Collection's concert, "La Noche Buena: Spanish Christmas Music of the New World," at St. Louis Cathedral in New Orleans, on Dec. 15, 2022. Chouki says he plays music to transcend polarization: "When I play my music I feel no difference, no politics. ... People have a moment to enjoy, to listen."

In early December, Chouki played with his local band at a gala on the grounds of the New Orleans Jazz Museum.

"I work to music. I play it before I go to bed. Like, it's sanity for me," says Jimese Orange, a marketing executive from South Carolina now living in New Orleans. She was at the jazz gala, sampling the broiled oysters and shrimp creole and grooving on Chouki's tight band.

Orange says, for her, the two gifts that bring people together are food and music. "But music especially. I mean it's been scientifically studied and proven on the vibrations and the megahertz of this sound and that sound, and it's literally linked to our brain and to our hearts."

Actually, what she says is true. There are neurophysiological responses when we make music together and when we listen to music together. This is not to say that music is somehow going to heal our great national divide. But it sure can't hurt.

"Music has been around since our earliest times on the planet as humans," says Janice Lindstrom, a lecturer in music therapy at the Meadows School of the Arts at Southern Methodist University in Dallas.

She points out that music activates more areas of the brain than any other activity, it engages our bodies to move in sync, and it releases oxytocin — the love hormone.

"Music has evolved to increase our social cohesion in human beings to help us work together and form deep bonds with one another so that we can survive," Lindstrom says. "Because we rely on others for our survival. We cannot survive in isolation."

The images of America at war with itself — after the murder of George Floyd and the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol — are what motivated Donna Elaine Miller to write A United State of Humanity.

Miller is a 63-year-old singer/songwriter living in Los Angeles. She freelances tunes for Disney and — like so many talented LA artists — has a day job at a restaurant. When her producer, Jon Baker, told her about a song contest put on by Braver Angels, a citizens' organization that is trying to depolarize America, "a united state of humanity" popped in her head.

"I leaned over, wrote it down and then I had to figure out what that meant," she says. "What is a united state of humanity? Well, it's not this, it's not that. It's not black, it's not white. That's how the song evolved."

Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.
/ Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
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Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.

It's not black, it's not white, it's not wrong, it's not right,

It's not red, it's not blue, just me and you.

Cue the electric bass and sultry guitar fills.

It's not rich, it's not poor,

Somewhere in the middle is the open door,

If our point of view don't quite see eye to eye,

Well, that's all the more reason why,

Her warm, limpid voice belts out the chorus:

We need a united state of humanity, we need it, we need it,

A united state of humanity, the sum of every part,

We need a united state of humanity, we need it, we need it,

Revolution's in the revolution of the heart.

Miller does not consider herself a revolutionary. "I call myself more of a spiritual activist."

"I think if we can relate at the level of our humanity," she says, "that's the only place we're going to solve any kind of divide. Because we have to see each other as humans first. We're all human before we're any skin color or any gender or any political party or anything."

Miller believes the malaise and malady that afflicts the American soul is not so much a political divide as it is a spiritual one. She says she disagrees profoundly with some of her friends.

"I think it's possible to listen to somebody who has a completely different point of view and not agree with them and still be friends, and still stand side by side, even in the midst of a disagreement."

Her catchy song won the Braver Angels songwriters contest. And it's been growing in popularity. Folks are now streaming it. Churches are asking her to perform it.

Perhaps her United State of Humanity has caught the moment.

Maybe Americans are tiring of the nastiness.

It's harmony they miss.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.
/ Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
/
Grace Widyatmadja/NPR
Donna Elaine Miller sings during a rehearsal at Redondo Beach Center for Spiritual Living in Redondo Beach, Calif., on Dec. 18, 2022.

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As NPR's Southwest correspondent based in Austin, Texas, John Burnett covers immigration, border affairs, Texas news and other national assignments. In 2018, 2019 and again in 2020, he won national Edward R. Murrow Awards from the Radio-Television News Directors Association for continuing coverage of the immigration beat. In 2020, Burnett along with other NPR journalists, were finalists for a duPont-Columbia Award for their coverage of the Trump Administration's Remain in Mexico program. In December 2018, Burnett was invited to participate in a workshop on Refugees, Immigration and Border Security in Western Europe, sponsored by the RIAS Berlin Commission.