In early April, the organizers of the Shakori Hills GrassRoots Festival ended a short section of an email with an electronic wink. "We can't wait to see you here!" wrote co-coordinator Sara Waters in a message to the five-dozen acts scheduled to play the biannual Chatham County roots festival, then just a month away.
Her exclamation ended a bit about House Bill 2, the sweepingly discriminatory legislation that the North Carolina General Assembly had pushed through in a short special session two weeks earlier. In the days since the inadequately labeled "bathroom bill" went into effect, Waters—like most concert promoters in the state—had anxiously waited to see if artists would follow the lead of businesses in launching a North Carolina boycott. On the afternoon of Friday, April 8, it started, when Bruce Springsteen became the first major artist to scrap a large N.C. show at the last minute.
A day later, Shakori Hills issued a statement that disavowed HB 2 by restating the festival's purpose. "At the festival," it read, "we seek to build up the community, to love everyone in it, because everyone has a part to play and every person's life effects everyone else's."
Waters worried about dispatching the message to the bands she was expecting. Would it make them fret unnecessarily, she wondered, or give them pause after they'd already decided to play? Ultimately, she did send it, doubled down on the festival's opposition, and closed with that polite, subtle plea to make the date.
"I didn't want to start a direct conversation that was, 'Are you going to come, or are you not going to come?'" says Waters. "We wanted to encourage them to come but also say that, if you're going to back out, you should probably do it now."
No one did cancel. In fact, the only strong reactions to Waters's email came from Brett Dennen, who had earned the festival's second-highest billing despite being a late addition to the roster. Dennen is a peripatetic, charming pop singer, his sunlit songs suggestive of his California childhood. But he's also worked as an activist, entrenched in the nonprofit world through a youth education program.
Dennen soon issued a statement of his own, emphatically confirming that he would not cancel but instead would donate a cut of his pay and stage time to area groups supporting transgender rights. Part of the reason, he explained, was how he felt about community-oriented festivals like Shakori Hills, which he'd played once, and the impact they can have on kids. He was speaking from experience. As a teenager, Dennen estimates he went to the Strawberry Music Festival in Yosemite—"in the heart of the Sierra Nevadas, gorgeous"—ten times. He later volunteered and worked for the festival.
"It was very similar—family-oriented, a little bit hippie because of the nature of the people there, open-minded, down-home," says Dennen. He's in Mexico now, rehearsing with a new band ahead of the release of Por Favor.
"The festival is its own little microcosm of a perfect world," he says. "Knowing what a festival like that means to its community, I feel the need to stay true to it."
The reaction hasn't been uniformly positive. Since Dennen made his proclamation, he says, friends have approached him about his choice, confused as to how he can justify entertaining a state now infamous for draconian laws.
"People believe that a firm line has to be drawn. When it comes to politics and religion and morality, people walk a hard line. They don't open themselves up to other possibilities," he says. "And then I have to explain my choice."
Dennen didn't consider scrapping his Shakori Hills show, but he admits he did worry for several days about the best way to use it as an opportunity. He didn't want the organization's nonprofit mission to suffer the bill's consequences more than necessary, but he did want to take a stand. The email from Shakori Hills made up his mind—to play and help.
"It was very convincing," he says. "I knew I could take that spirit into my own show."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Come On Down"