The closeness within the country music community and the ties that lie between the artists, even as they compete for trophies and radio spins, was the theme of Wednesday's CMA Awards. But there's another tightknit cadre of musicians that exists, and performs, east of the Cumberland River – a scene that's helped birth artists like Margo Price and Sturgill Simpson. On Saturday, those colleagues, collaborators and friends will come together at the Basement East for an annual East Nashville tradition, "A Tribute to the Last Waltz." The salute to the Band's 1976 concert is the brainchild of local artists Allen Thompson and Don Gallardo and, this year, benefits the newly created Ben Eyestone Fund, named for a beloved musician who lost his life to cancer complications this past summer.
Featuring Jon Latham, Kelsey Waldon, Ashley Wilcoxson (who just appeared on the CMA stage singing backup for Brothers Osborne), JP Harris, Little Bandit, Tim Easton, Gallardo, Thompson and more, as well as some special guests, the event re-creates arguably the greatest concert of all time – the Thanksgiving Day farewell performance from the Band. Known as a can't-miss show in East Nashville, the evening cuts to the soul of the collaborative community – Lilly Hiatt, Dave Rawlings, Elizabeth Cook, Steve Gorman, Sarah Potenza and Price have all appeared in past editions – and this year's Waltz will hold even more meaning as it launches the Ben Eyestone Fund at the nonprofit Music Health Alliance. The initiative helps artists like Eyestone who were cheated out of quality and timely medical treatment by a flawed system.
"Hopefully the Ben Eyestone fund can bring a small bit of light to such a horrible loss for our community," says Little Bandit's Alex Caress, a bandmate and close friend of Eyestone, who died at 28. "Maybe in death, Ben can help other uninsured and underinsured musicians get the care they need when they need it. This Last Waltz tribute really encompasses what our East Nashville community is all about – people coming together to share love and beautiful music with friends and strangers alike."
Uninsured or underinsured musicians are an epidemic particularly rampant in a creative community like Nashville, and few independent artists can afford the astronomical costs of healthcare. And even when they are properly insured, they often receive the bare minimum of care that is slow at best. Eyestone was a victim of this systemic failure, as was Those Darlins' Jessi Zazu, who had to advocate for herself among doctors who continually told her not to worry about the symptoms that would end up proving to be cervical cancer and ultimately taking her life.
"Ben’s Fund will provide grants to cover direct and immediate diagnostic healthcare costs in partnership with Saint Thomas Health for uninsured and underinsured music professionals in the Nashville area," a statement from Music Health Alliance says. "The mission of the Ben Eyestone Fund at Music Health Alliance is to ensure that no one else dies a victim of the same system that failed Ben."
Even in the wake of tragedy, the night will be a joyous tribute to Nashville's past, present and future – a sonic document of a community that never grows too big to watch out for its members.