In 1997, Porter’s Call founder/executive director Al Andrews moved from Colorado to Nashville to become a counselor at a private practice in Nashville. After a couple of years as a counselor in Nashville, he realized that 90% of his patients worked in music and that their needs were unlike the rest of his clientele.
“They were different, not because they have different problems than most people, but I’ve never met an artist who can come regularly on a Tuesday at 9 a.m.,” Andrews tells Billboard. “And at the beginning of an artist’s career, maybe they cannot afford the going rates.”
Andrews decided to meet with record labels to see if any would be willing to purchase a day of counseling sessions for their artist roster. The first person he visited was Peter York, then president of EMI Christian Music Group (now Capitol CMG).
“I said, ‘Labels spend so much money investing in artists’ careers to get them out there and successful, but we all watch artists crash and burn all the time, for different reasons,’” Andrews recalls. The label’s philanthropic The Sparrow Foundation offered Andrews a generous grant to launch a pilot program, but with one stipulation–that he be willing to see any artist from any label.
“Usually, labels don’t help other labels, but he and his team wanted to open it up to all the competing labels’ artists. I asked him why, and he said, ‘We think this is something the whole industry needs.’”
After three months of meeting with artists, York and Bill Hearn (then EMI Christian Music Group’s CEO) encouraged Andrews to launch Porter’s Call, which offers free counseling and mental health support to both signed and unsigned recording artists (as well as their significant others). Porter’s Call officially launched in 2001 just outside of Nashville in Franklin, Tennessee, and over 20 years later, Andrews says the organization has helped more than 3,000 recording artists.
Tonight (Aug. 30), Porter’s Call will celebrate its 13th annual Evening of Stories event at the newly opened Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Nashville’s Belmont University. Kelsea Ballerini, “I Hear a Symphony” singer Cody Fry, “Sunday Sermons” hitmaker Anne Wilson and country trio Lady A’s Hillary Scott will appear. Also featured will be British sailor Tracy Edwards, MBE, who gained acclaim as the skipper of the first all-female crew to sail around the world in the Whitbread Round the World Yacht Race, as well as People’s Choice Award winner (for favorite viral video star in 2011) and author Carlos Whittaker.
“Porter’s Call has been a true pillar for my mental health and personal growth over the last few years, and I am beyond honored to honor the incredible work they do during this year’s event,” Ballerini tells Billboard via a statement. “I’ve learned that through vulnerability in our storytelling, true connection happens, and I’m so looking forward to sharing more of mine.”
The Evening of Stories events launched in 2009, welcoming approximately 150 attendees. Since then, artists including Amy Grant, Vince Gill, Thomas Rhett and Holly Williams have shared their stories and songs to support Porter’s Call. Andrews expects approximately 500 attendees at tonight’s event.
Andrews estimates that 90 percent of the funds raised from the event are raised before the event happens, via sponsorships. “When you come to Evening of Stories, we don’t have the awkward checkbook moment,” Andrews says. “It’s really a celebration and thank you to donors and supporters. The artists take part in Evening of Stories willingly and so many say that Porter’s Call has been part of their career and they want to give back and share about their experience.”
Throughout the year, the remainder of Porter’s Call’s operating funds come from donations from an array of record labels, publishers, managers and often, artists themselves who want to give back. Importantly, relying on donations also allows the organization to offer its services to artists free of charge. Andrews estimates the organization has collectively saved artists over $6 million from not having to pay the going counseling rates.
“We never ask artists for money for our services, though often on their own, we’ve seen them turn around and give back in various ways,” Andrews says.
Porter’s Call takes its name from Benedictine monasteries in the fifth century, when a porter opened the monastery doors to sojourners, aiding them with food or counsel. “We wanted people to knock on our door so we can help them find the way to what they need,” Andrews says.
Artists make use of the service as needed, with some going to sessions over many years, while others use the service for a more limited time. For artists struggling with addiction, Porter’s Call acts as a referral resource if needed. When artists are off the road or in Nashville between tour dates, they can have in-person sessions, while on the road they can set up phone or Zoom sessions.
Porter’s Call has grown to five staffers, including Andrews, an office manager and three porters, though Andrews says they are looking at adding more porters, in response to the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on artists.
“As we look around the counseling community and our city, the need has been so great with all of the issues that COVID brought, such as artists not touring for over a year,” Andrews says. “Also, people are also much more open about needing help. We are trying to be as creative as we can in meeting those needs, such as [starting] smaller groups of artist peer relationships.”
Andrews has fielded requests from people in New York City, Los Angeles and Florida to expand Porter’s Call to other areas, though he says it is Nashville’s supportive, community-driven feel that has made Porter’s Call unique. “It’s not quite a franchiseable thing at the moment,” he says. “In Nashville, people came together to support it and it continued to grow. But I have told people if they want to start a similar program, we are glad to talk them through it or offer ideas. But even the fact that it is no cost to artists is unique. It takes a community of people to invest and work together to make something like this happen.”