What happens in Vegas doesn’t always stay in Vegas.
One year ago, a shooter killed 58 people and wounded hundreds more during Jason Aldean‘s closing set at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas. The reverberations were felt in news reports across the country for weeks and led to more calls for government action regarding military-style firearms. It also spurred many artists and their management teams to revisit and revise their policies for concert-venue crises when they returned to their home cities.
While others carried something away from Vegas after last Oct. 1, Musicians On Call (MOC) brought its services to Nevada. The Nashville-based charity, designed to bring the healing power of music to patients’ bedsides, rounded up a handful of artists — Michael Ray, Brandon Ray (no relation ), Charles Esten, Filmore and The Railers — within days for a whirlwind trip that had them performing for patients, medical staff and first responders at the Sunrise Hospital and Medical Center, which had the largest caseload from the attack.
While doctors and nurses used scalpels and medications to heal bodies, the musicians employed guitars and voices to help repair spirits. Filmore and The Railers had attendants smiling — even twirling — in the hospital hallway as they covered “Fishin’ in the Dark.” Warner Music Nashville creative director Shane Tarleton engaged Reba McEntire on FaceTime so she could speak one-on-one with patients. Michael Ray, whose immediate family includes a registered nurse and a fire-department first responder, shared tears as he showed his appreciation for people whose work sometimes puts their lives in danger.
MOC didn’t go in when the bullets were flying, but when it did appear on Oct. 10, it provided services at a time when emotional needs were high.
“Now’s a hard time,” said Sunrise charge nurse Michelle Lopez in a video from the MOC visit. “A lot of patients have gone home, and the ones that are still here are going to be in for a long haul, and they need that [reinforcement] and uplift and assistance.”
“I don’t know that I’ve ever seen our mission so well illustrated as it was that week in Las Vegas,” says MOC president Pete Griffin.
The nonprofit coordinates in-person visits by artists at affiliated care facilities in 17 different cities, actively harnessing music’s restorative properties.
“They’ve been able to show that there’s a connection between music and its ability to lower stress, its ability to lower blood pressure, its ability to assist in pain management situations and even its ability to bring up memories that may have otherwise seemed inaccessible,” says Griffin. “They can prove that it’s happening. We still don’t know why that happens.”
MOC was organized in 1999 in New York to formalize a bond between artists and patients. Its chapters bring a cadre of musicians to its member hospitals on a weekly basis, and it has employed such established artists as Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, Jerrod Niemann and Terri Clark. The agency provides training for the gig, which is unlike any other performance they might give.
“It’s never easy being in the hospitals, seeing babies with tubes coming out of them, or kids battling cancer, or seeing veterans just really struggling,” says Griffin. “But you kind of keep it together. Our role is to make those days better for people.”
Griffin left MTV after nearly nine years because the day-to-day routine had led him “to forget about the power of the music.” But in his MOC role, he has seen unconscious patients become responsive for the first time in months and witnessed memory-challenged seniors suddenly have a cognitive breakthrough, all because a song helped them connect the mental channels.
It’s because of those experiences that Michael Ray gave up tickets to a Chicago Cubs playoff game to make last year’s Vegas trip, and Esten flew nine hours on his lone off-day during a TV production week for just three hours on the ground in Vegas.
“I won’t sing any of these songs the same way again,” said Esten after his Vegas experience. “You come to understand the power of music, and you never take it for granted again.”
Sunrise clearly understood it. The hospital lobbied MOC to establish a permanent program, which launched in April with assistance from the Academy of Country Music’s charity wing, ACM Lifting Lives.
“They have their awards show every year in Las Vegas, and so they had some obviously significant ties to the city,” says Griffin.
Corporate aid is essential to MOC, which reported nearly $2 million in expenses for 2016. The Country Music Association, CMT and Southwest Airlines funded the trip to Vegas last October. Each time MOC opens a program, as it did with Sunrise this year, it requires careful budgeting to support the staff and the education it brings to the musicians.
“With anyone that goes into the hospital, we have to make sure that they’re trained on HIPAA and confidentiality, and they’re trained on infection control. They know how to interact with the patients: what you can say, what you can’t say,” notes Griffin.
What MOC definitely can say is that while the government seems hamstrung in reacting to Las Vegas and other massacres, MOC reached out to Vegas at a crucial moment. The organization will present its Music Heals Award to Esten and iHeartMedia personality Bobby Bones on Oct. 10 at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum’s CMA Theater, and that event coincides with the one-year anniversary of its trip to Vegas, when the mission became as clear as ever.
“I don’t know that we’ve ever played for people who are in the hospital simply because they were listening to music,” says Griffin. “They drove from all over the country and bought tickets and everything else to go to a music festival, so these are obviously people that care a lot about country music. So, you know, to be there and bring country artists to them from Nashville, it really meant a lot.”