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Till death do us part
[ 09:00 p.m. PDT- 04/21/99 ]

Nashville's historic Ryman Auditorium is a distinguished building set slightly back from lower Broadway, a once seedy, now gentrified, strip of bars and souvenir shops, home to the Nascar Cafe, Planet Hollywood and, around the corner, Hooters. But the venerable landmark stands proud, its red brick exterior exuding an almost academic authority. Once the home of the Grand Ole Opry, the Ryman now feels haunted inside, its stage, wooden ceilings and bench seats resonating with memories of country music greats from decades past.

It was the perfect venue for roots singer/songwriter Steve Earle's April 12 benefit for "Journey of Hope," an anti-death penalty organization and one of Earle's pet causes. The organization -- which includes Earle, playwright Sam Shepard, whose mother was murdered, and Bud Welch, whose daughter died in the Oklahoma City bombing -- does speaking tours of states where the issue is hot. (There will be a similar small tour later this year in a yet-to-be determined state.) Their recent two-week tour of Tennessee's largest cities was prompted by the impending execution of Robert Coe, which would be the state's first since 1960. Joined by some of his good friends, including Emmylou Harris (backed by Buddy and Julie Miller), Jackson Browne and the Indigo Girls (with special guests the Dixie Chicks), Earle and company performed acoustic numbers that were somehow thematically linked to love, loss, hope and forgiveness.

In between sets, Earle introduced Sister Helen Prejean, a high-spirited, articulate woman who brought onto the stage the "Journey of Hope" participants, all of whom had lost loved ones to murder or had family members on death row; they introduced themselves and briefly told their stories. "My father and I were stabbed in our home by robbers," said one young woman. "I lived; he didn't." Inmates' families recounted tales of mistaken accusations, mental disability and simple love and remorse for kin whose lives had gone horribly wrong. It was an incredibly powerful moment as they joined hands in unity, both their pain and their forgiveness palpable.
-- Meredith Ochs

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