Leslie Woods got the news by text message. She was in the car with her two children on Sunday, July 27, when her cell phone beeped an alert. The message was from one of Woods' neighbors, asking if she was in church. During a short, hastily typed exchange at a traffic light, Woods learned of that morning's shooting at Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church, the church she's attended since she was 3 years old.
Jim Adkisson, a man with a troubled past who reportedly blamed liberals for his difficulty in finding a job, allegedly walked into the sanctuary during the morning service and opened fire with a shotgun, killing two people and injuring six others. He was apprehended by several men at the service.
"It wasn't quite on the level of 9/11," Woods says. "But it was more painful. It was more personal. I started to think about who was hurt, who couldn't get out of the way, why I wasn't there. My first thought was, ‘Thank God I wasn't there.' Then it was, ‘Why wasn't I?' There was a real fear that somebody in my family, somebody close to me, somebody I'd shared my life with, was hurt. Of course, most of the people I've shared my life with or been close to were hurt. They weren't hit by bullets, but they were hurt. It was scary."
Woods, a singer who has earned acclaim for the moody, atmospheric country music she performs with the Dark Mountain Orchestra, immediately started looking for a way to take part in the recovery. Within a few hours of the shooting, she had started planning a memorial and benefit concert.
"I was born and raised in that church," she says. "As soon as I heard, I thought, ‘We should do something.' I started talking to [singer/songwriter] Doug Simon, and he said we should do a show, throw something out and see if anybody's interested."
The response Woods and Simon got came from everywhere. Gary Mitchell, the owner of the Valarium, offered his club as a venue for the show, which has been scheduled for Friday, Aug. 15. Yee Haw Industries, Sapphire, bliss, and Carpe Librum Booksellers have all donated items for auction. More than a dozen musicians and performers replied to Woods' call, some from well outside Knoxville. A range of mostly local acts—from the singer/songwriters Karen Reynolds and Nancy Brennan Strange to a group of local old harp singers to hard-rock bands Pick Up the Snake, the American Plague, and the Melungeons—were booked by the middle of the week following the shooting. Both Simon and Woods will also play.
Right after she went public with the idea, it "suddenly got out of control," Woods says. "I can't organize my underwear drawer, so I'm drowning right now. I'm keeping track of everything in a notebook because I don't know how to do it on a computer."
"I was surprised and not surprised," she adds. "The Unitarians reach out to everyone. They go visit other churches, so we all know people at other churches, and there are lots of mixed couples—Jews and Catholics who have married Unitarians—and social activists. So there was a deluge of people wanting to perform. We're really supportive of the arts and music, so a lot of the people who belong to the church are writers and artists and musicians. But we're trying to hold it down to people who have some sort of connection to the church or are local. We did have a lot of people from out of town offer to perform, but we had to stop somewhere."
Some of the performers, like Woods and American Plague guitarist/singer Alex Weatherly, aka Jaw, have direct connections to the church. (Weatherly, who has declined interview requests since the shooting, was in the sanctuary when Adkisson opened fire, killing two people and injuring six more.) Others, like Reynolds, are motivated by political sympathy.
Reynolds belongs to the Metropolitan Community Church, a Christian congregation serving the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender community that met at the old TVUUC building when it first formed in Knoxville in the 1980s.
"When I was looking for a church, I attended services at TVUUC," Reynolds says. "I know countless people who are members. They're very open and very welcoming, whether you're gay, straight, Christian, or Jewish. It has some of the same principles as the Metropolitan Community Church. In fact, I like to jokingly say MCC has a higher Jesus quotient than the Unitarian Universalists."
Even Rus Harper, the former frontman for Teenage Love and one of Knoxville's most outspoken critics of organized religion, has agreed to take part in the concert with his current band, the Melungeons. It's not entirely magnanimous—Harper says he had been waiting for an opportunity to play with Woods when he received the invitation—but Knoxville's most notorious shock rocker is still glad to offer his services for a good cause.
"I don't particularly care for the idea of churches," Harper says. "But these are nice people. Nobody deserves that kind of crap."
Woods is calling the concert a benefit, and proceeds from the auction and the $5 cover will be donated to the Knoxville Relief Fund set up by the national Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations for the victims and their families. But she insists that it's really intended as a community gathering for support and fellowship.
"It's not about money," she says. "It's mostly about bringing people within this community together to talk about it, to laugh when they can, to support each other. It seems too soon to do that at the church."
The concert, which starts at 5 p.m., will feature family-friendly acts for the first couple of hours. Steve White and Leslie Terry will start the show, followed by a group of old harp singers, Karen Reynolds, Nancy Brennan Strange, David Simon, and Candice McQueen. The second part of the line-up includes the Kevin Abernathy Band, Pick Up the Snake, the Family Caz, the Melungeons, and the American Plague. Woods says she's working to include a few more acts, as well as some surprise performances that won't be announced until just before the concert.
"I just want to bring everybody together who's having the same feelings," Woods says. "They can talk about it or not talk about it, or just stand there and enjoy some music, art, and poetry.... Some good has to come of this. I keep thinking that something's up, that something good's going to come of it." m
CORRECTION: The meaning of Leslie Woods' last quote was changed in the original version of this story. The quote has been corrected.