Many of country music’s top performers have been giving their time and talents this week to several of their most special fans, with participation in the 8th Annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Lifting Lives Music Camp in Nashville.
The week-long residential program opens to campers nationwide, talented in music, who have been diagnosed with the developmental disorder Williams syndrome. The camp has a dual purpose of studying Williams syndrome while providing music enrichment through performance and education. ACM Lifting Lives — the charitable wing of the organization that provides financial relief to those in the music business going through difficulties — underwrites the cost of the camp, enabling the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities to advance its mission of improving the lives of individuals with Williams syndrome and their families, through research, training and service.
From Thursday, June 22 through Tuesday, June 27, campers participated in a wide variety of musical activities — ranging from karaoke with Curb recording artist Jerrod Niemann, to witnessing a day in the life of national radio personality Bobby Bones. At the centerpiece of the event was composing a song, ”I Love Big,” with Capitol Nashville’s Dierks Bentley and Ross Copperman, then recording the song Monday morning at Black River Recording Studio with Kelsea Ballerini in attendance, and performing the song with Chris Young on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry.
Needless to say, the camp is an event that the campers won’t forget anytime soon. Just ask Dana Walburn, who returns to Nashville this year for the event. “Being here has been such an inspiration. It’s helped me to become a better person, and I feel so blessed to be here in Nashville,” said Walburn, who cited Bentley and Carrie Underwood as two of her favorite performers. “I was so blessed to come back here with my family and my friends.”
When asked by Billboard what the 26-year-old learned from the event, she said, “We all have a heart, and we can use our voices to tell a story, and have it make an impact.” When it came time to collaborate with Bentley, she said it was an experience that would stay with her forever. “It was really exciting. He’s laid-back, and really helped us. He was so enthusiastic, and gave his time to help us.”
Billboard had a chance to catch up with Ballerini on Monday as the campers were assembling for the recording session. She says it’s a moment that she has been waiting for, along with the campers.
“I’m really excited,” she raved. “I love when we get to do things that bring music back to what music is — that’s powerful, healing, and joyful. Their perspective on music is just so pure, and it’s something that they love purely. I’m really excited to be in there with them, and watch them create and record the song they have written, and watch the pureness of that. I think that we get so much in work mode with music, and I’m really excited to see that [other] perspective.”
The singer behind such hits as “Dibs” and the current “Legends” says that seeing the effect that the pure thrill of music had on those at camp was something that touched her deeply. “I think it’s so good to be emotional, and let yourself feel what you want to feel,” Ballerini relates. “I’m so emotional all the time. I think it’s a beautiful thing that the ACM does, and it’s nice for them to ask me to be a part of it.”
Liz Mick, who returns as one of the counselors for her third year in 2017, says it’s definitely a learning experience — and one that she loves. “I look forward to this every year — it’s literally the highlight of my year,” she exclaims. “Before graduate school, I had never worked with anyone with Williams syndrome before, but I have learned so much about what it means. It has meant so much to meet these wonderful campers, and see them create a song from scratch, and perform it within a week.”
Mick says the highlight for the campers all depends on who you speak with: “We have campers from all over the country. We have some of them that have loved country music since they were little, as well as new country music fans. With some campers, it is meeting the stars — the people they have been listening to their whole lives. For other campers, it’s staying away from home from the first time, or coming to a big city for the first time. But, I do have to say that karaoke always seems to bring the house down… The amount of confidence radiating from them when they come down from the stage is just beautiful.”
The event is one of the most anticipated of the year for the ACM, and Ballerini tipped her hat to the organization for lending a hand to others through the Lifting Lives banner.
“I think anytime you can take something as big as the ACMs, and then they choose to be selfless, and choose to give back to the music industry, and to causes like this — [this] is what it’s all about,” she says. “It’s why we do what we do, to be able to give back to people.”