"What does music mean in your life?"
The question is simple. The response was remarkable. The Country Music Association put up a wall during the CMA Music Festival June 11-14 and provided pens and Post-it notes for visitors to write a few words about how music changed their lives.
One by one, the board accumulated thousands of reactions. Some of them were driven by an obsession about a particular artist -- Taylor Swift, Hunter Hayes or Luke Bryan, for example -- but others went straight to the value of music as a transformative force:
Music is a heart with lyrics.
Therapy to get through life!
Music keeps me going when I feel like giving up.
Another response cleverly used two Post-it notes to complete a heart:
Music was playing when we first met.
The festival can be brutal on the people who work it -- it's hot and sticky, it's difficult to navigate through the tens of thousands of bodies, and schedules tend to be packed. Yet in the middle of the frenzy, the same Post-its that people affix to their computer screens as a reminder about mundane deadlines
suddenly became a reminder to workers who discovered the board about the purpose behind their job.
"Every day I would go and check it," says CMA CEO Sarah Trahern. "It started off as one thing, to be an interactive activity to keep people busy, and it ended up -- I'm going to get teary-eyed over this -- it ended up saying to me what the magic of Music Fest is all about, which is the interaction between people and music on all sorts of different levels."
Some levels of music's value were easily described by fans:
Escape from reality.
Others were much more poignant:
Music is a language that speaks more than any spoken language.
Where words fail, music speaks.
Plenty of musicians would agree with that latter assessment. Bruce Springsteen has often used his concerts to evangelize about the power of a rock 'n' roll song to change a life. Producer Jay Joyce (Eric Church, Brothers Osborne) doesn't see himself as a religious person, but he converted a church into a recording studio, and he sees music as an other-worldly glue.
"People who make music are messing with vibration, and that's way more higher a calling than any minister or any spoken word or theology," said Joyce in early 2014. "We speak in a language, we don't even know what it is. We're shaping music vibrations to make somebody feel sad or happy. That's like, incredible. That would be way more God's language, or whatever-you-want-to-call-it language, than some church."
In that way, Keith Urban -- whose new single is the aptly titled "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" -- sees music as a means for exploring spirituality and the meaning of life.
"It's, for me, what it's intended for," he says. "I like to be able to make my own relationship to that that I believe in."
Spirituality for Dummies defines a spiritual life as one that combines love and respect for God, for the self and for others. Music operates with the same set of connectors. The origination of melody remains a mystery -- "It's a gift from God," said Brian Wilson in 2002. It's an expression of one person's internal creative world, and when it works, it can motivate a mass of people to sing an entire chorus back to an artist on a stage.
"I think it's spiritual," says Miranda Lambert. "It's something that brings people together. I look out at my shows and I think, 'All these people from all different walks of life, all kinds of ages and sizes and everything else, and the one thing that's bringing us all here is music that's moved them in some way.' "
Music is a life force.
Music's connective property was on full display during the June 10 CMT Music Awards when Urban sang "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" for the first time on TV. The camera caught Urban's wife, Nicole Kidman, singing along during part of the performance, and that simple image was hugely impactful to "John Cougar" co-writer Shane McAnally.
"I texted Keith after that and said, 'You know, whatever happens with this song, what just happened on my TV was enough,' " notes McAnally. "It's the whole reason that we do this, because it is about that connection. That [camera shot] was about a connection of two people, but that's just a great metaphor for the connection that we all feel through music, and I really was moved by it."
The Post-it note wall may become a metaphor on its own. The CMA captured the entire structure and all the individual messages on camera, and Trahern is thinking about blowing up the image and putting it on display at the office as a reminder to the staff about what makes the music business unique. She's likewise mulling the idea of doing additional Post-it walls backstage at the awards or at the annual CMA Country Christmas taping to serve as a reminder that behind the tedium of schedules, industry politics and impersonal technology, it's still possible for even the most cynical, jaded country music veteran to make a difference with their life's vocation.
"It's great to stop and think for a moment about why we get to do this," suggests Trahern. "It really is a blessing and a responsibility, and it's something much bigger than a 9-to-5 business."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update newsletter -- sign up here.