On most days, the streets of downtown Nashville are filled with the echoing sound of country music flowing out of nearby bars and venues. On Oct. 2, a large crowd of country fans and workers in the music industry quietly walked into Ascend Amphitheater to find healing after a national tragedy hit far too close to home.
Hours earlier, 59 people were killed and more than 500 injured when a gunman shot down at fans watching Jason Aldean's headlining set at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival in Las Vegas. No one expected the three-day music event to end in tragedy, a moment that is now marked as the most deadly mass shooting in American history.
Just 18 hours after the carnage, Nashville gathered together to mourn and find comfort. Nashville star and country artist Charles Esten took the stage first to greet the audience, obviously shaken by the day's events.
"We're here to wrap our arms around Las Vegas and all those who have suffered through this horrific and heartless attack," he said.
Sally Williams, General Manager of the Grand Ole Opry, reminded the crowd that there is still much healing to be done. "Over the next couple of days, Nashvillians who were on site last night will be returning home," she explained. "It will be our responsibility to reach out and hold them up, as they process what happened. Embrace them, listen to them and love them."
Next up, country legend Vince Gill took the stage with his acoustic guitar to perform "Go Rest High On That Mountain," a song that has become synonymous with the grief and loss that comes alongside national tragedies. "I'm honored to be here as a voice for the innocent," he said before strumming the song's first line. Within seconds, most of the crowd had burst into tears.
After his performance, Gill invited his wife and fellow music star Amy Grant to the stage. She led the crowd in a prayer, and asked that each person reached out and touched the person next to them. Along with being a sign of togetherness, the moment also represented the welcoming spirit of Nashville. No one was afraid to reach out to a stranger and show them they are not alone. Fear would not be embraced here.
Keith Urban took the stage and began telling those in attendance about how his 9-year-old daughter, Sunday Rose, was confused about his emotional reaction to the day's events.
"[She] said to me, 'Dad, you seem quiet," Urban told the crowd. "I said, 'Yeah, really there was a lot of people killed last night.' And she said, 'Did you know any of them?' And I said, 'Not that I know of.' And then she said, 'Well then why are you so sad?' I said, 'Well, first of all, these were innocent people, horrifically taken.'"
He then explained about how tightly-knit country music really is, and how this tragedy felt incredibly personal.
"It's the one thing about country music that's always been at the center of it, in that it is community. It's about community," he said sadly. "And so I did know those people, in that way, and it just really hit me."
He then performed a powerful cover of Simon and Garfunkel's classic tune "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
The final performance of the evening was Alison Krauss' moving, a capella version of "Amazing Grace."
Finally, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry took the stage to share her sadness over the events.
"Death visited two places where people were simply doing the things that give life meaning and give life joy: Worshiping their God. Listening to music," Barry said, referring to the recent church shooting in nearby Antioch, Tenn. "You shouldn't have to worry about gunfire in those places. You shouldn't have to worry about dying."
To conclude the vigil, Charles Esten returned to the stage to comfort and motivate those in the crowd. Although each individual was given a candle to light in honor of the victims, the cool breeze of the day quickly blew the flames out. Still, the gathering symbolized much more than a simple candle ever could.
"Those aren't the lights that matter," Esten proclaimed. "You go out and you be the light. That is something that wind cannot blow out and darkness cannot quench."