Until I started shaking hands with American diplomats at the Embassy, I hadn't realized what a truly strange time it was to be in Russia. Almost everyone I talked to was going home.
Della Mae had gotten the offer late last year, and we were able to fit it snugly in-between a West and East coast tour. The airline tickets and the money hadn't come through until the last minute, but even then I hadn't realized this trip hung on such thin thread.
We played Spaso house the day after our arrival to Moscow. Spaso house is a historic and buttercream looking Ambassador's residence that can host a party of 300 people. It also boasts the largest chandelier in a private residence in all of Russia, so you get the idea.
The Ambassador, former governor of Utah and presidential candidate, John Huntsman, greeted us warmly. He mentioned that this would be a goodbye party of sorts, since 58 of the diplomats present were going to be on a plane home in two days time. Some of them wouldn't be able to make it because they were frantically packing up their houses and pulling their kids from school.
In the past 6 years we've performed in plenty of places that have strained relationships with the United States. We've been to Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Vietnam. However, this trip felt particularly poignant. Russia has been in the news every day in America. Sometimes it feels like I'm on a 24/7 media diet of Trump, Putin and Russians. Maybe you run in a different crowd than me, but it has been frustrating trying to make sense of all this political madness. I anticipated that when we got to Russia there would be many questions from the Russians who I would meet. Perhaps even skepticism or hostility. Why were we there? What did I think of Putin? What did I think of Trump? Which side was I on?
Ironically 6 hours after we touched down in Moscow, we decided to meet some young Russians who we met through the internet. Named “The Red Brick Boys” they are the only bluegrass band in Moscow, and they convene every Monday night to jam. They picked us up at our hotel, carried our guitars and we walked to the cafe where drank tea and we picked until our jet lag caught up with us. The only questions we got were “Can you play Sweet Verona” or “Can you stay for one more song?”
In fact, these young people knew almost all the songs from our first album “I Built This Heart”, which made my heart swell to the size of a watermelon.
There was nothing about politics, no sideways glances, no feeling of mistrust. Just music.
Before I landed I had lots of pre-conceptions about what the Russian people would be like. I thought they might be cold, that they might be suspicious of our mission of cultural diplomacy, that they would make us drink a lot of vodka (only one of those things turned out to be true).
I am ashamed to admit I bore these stereotypes with me, but I learned again the lesson I take home with me every time I travel: the people are not the politics.
In addition to our concerts in Moscow we played at a school for young blind children, explained bluegrass to students studying Tchaikovsky and performed at a spring festival in Chelyabinsk. Rather than write about it all in great detail I feel some urgency to share my greatest insight: turning a whole country into “the other” or “the stranger” is dangerous. At this time in history it is important that we remember the lessons from the past. We are more alike than we are different, though it might not seem so at all times.
America is a country I'm always glad to return to because of the incredible variety of people, foods, music and inspiration but there is so much more outside our borders. The media often portrays otherwise because it is sensational; fear keeps us coming back for more. I urge you to let go of the clickbait and make real relationships. If you can travel somewhere you feel is outside your comfort zone....do it, if you can reach out directly to someone different than you and share a meal or a song, do it. Now is the time to make friends not enemies, and if you don't know where to start, music is a great jumping off point.