At first thought, senior citizens and hit songwriters might seem to be very different groups of individuals (with, of course, the exception of Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn and their iconic crowd). Yet in reality, every day senior citizens and songwriters share very important common ground—the art of storytelling. Billy Dawson captures those stories in “Seniors & Songwriters,” a new online series that launches this month.
Dawson, a Nashville-based singer/songwriter and best-selling children’s book author, partnered with Meridian Senior Living to share “Seniors & Songwriters,” which spotlights successful tunesmiths and senior citizens who have fascinating stories to share.
“For me, the story behind the seniors is so important to our foundation. They’ve lived life and we want to put those life stories down forever, to put their life song on repeat,” Dawson tells Sounds Like Nashville. “I want to put it down to where a senior’s story will impact somebody’s life, where it just literally sends chills up their spine. They are like, ‘Wow, I can learn from them. I can make the world a better place because of their story impact.’ It’s all about the domino effect.”
As host of the series, Dawson has been interviewing residents at different senior living communities and sharing their life stories. The series also spotlights the lives of some of Nashville’s most acclaimed songwriters, including Aaron Barker, with others to be highlighted in other episodes.
“Country music tells a story,” says Kevin Carlin, Partner/Chief Sales Officer at Meridian Senior Living. “Every song I hear, I can go back to sitting in a car with my parents going cross-country listening to ‘On The Road Again.’ It brings back that memory and… those songs become triggers that help people remember. It bridges very well, especially with country music. It tells a story you can relate to. It brings seniors back to those moments.”
Dawson was inspired to launch the series after a benefit he did in Florida for Operation Heart F.E.L.T. (Feeding Empty Little Tummies) before the pandemic hit. “There were all these vendors there under their tents and so I went out and started shaking people’s hands and thanking them for coming out. I got to the final tent and it was an assisted living,” Dawson recalls. “I said, ‘Where is this located?’ And they said, ‘It’s right across the way. They were listening to your soundcheck and listening to your music.’ I said, ‘Well I’ll just go over there and do a show for them.’”
Needless to say, the residents and staff were thrilled by Dawson’s impromptu performance and one of the staffers connected Dawson and Carlin. “Kevin and I got in touch and we became like instant brothers,” Dawson says. “I had an idea for a show and he had an idea so I thought I’d combine the two ideas together, Seniors & Songwriters, like singers and songwriters—the story behind the senior and the story behind the songwriter. We want to put down these people’s stories like songs so people can put them on repeat and learn from their stories so they do not get lost because a lot of these people don’t have families. A lot of these people don’t have people to visit them.”
The first episode of “Seniors & Songwriters” features a masked and socially distant interview with Louis Perkins, a 97-year-old veteran who served in the Armed Forces for 40 years and went on to become a professor of Biological Sciences at Howard University. He is also among the brave African Americans to fight for and champion civil rights in America. Today he lives in Chevy Chase House, a senior living community in the nation’s capitol. Dawson visited him there and the episode also features Ben’s Chili Bowl, a legendary Washington D.C. restaurant once frequented by Martin Luther King Jr. and other Civil Rights leaders as well as luminaries such as President Barack Obama. Dawson interviewed the owner Virginia Ali about the iconic restaurant’s important history. Perkins’ was among those who often ate at Ben’s Chili Bowl during a time in history when there were so few places for the African American community to dine. Perkins’ experiences intertwine with this historical establishment and Dawson’s interviews shine a light on that important time in history.
“I’ve been working over two decades in senior living and I’ve held about every job in the book from caregiver to owning a medium size company, but what has always drawn me to the industry is the times when I get to sit down with the residents and learn their story. It’s my favorite time,” Carlin says. “I always tell people I don’t really need to pick up a history book. I just need to walk down the hallway and go into somebody’s room because their stories are amazing. I always thought some day when I have a few minutes I want to get together and start a video tape that captures all this because most of their stories will just disappear because they’re not written. Even Mr. Perkins’ as glorious of a life as he had, it’s not really written anywhere, but we’ve captured it. To see it come together and have the first ‘Seniors & Songwriters’ ready to go, it was like a dream come true for me.” Dawson has a history of combining his music and community outreach. He’s spent years involving in prison ministry, visiting inmates and teaching them to write songs. The Texas native has also lent his time to such worthy causes as the Pat and Emmitt Smith Charities, Matthew McConaughey’s Just Keep Livin Foundation, Toby Keith’s Kids Korral, Muscular Dystrophy Association, the George Lopez Foundation, Homes for our Troops and others.
“I’ve always loved people,” says Dawson, whose new single “Unite” is a call for racial harmony. “When I was a young kid, my mom gave me a dollar for the offering plate at church. I ripped it up and gave it to all my buddies so they could give a little bit too. I always thought, ‘I want somebody else to have something too.’ Ever since I was young, my parents instilled in me that it’s God, family and friends and helping others is important. It was never a forced thing. I’ve just always wanted to help people.”
Dawson and Carlin are hoping “Seniors & Songwriters” will help shine a spotlight on some of America’s unsung heroes like Louis Perkins, and that the series will remind people the power music has to enhance lives. “Music defines a lot of people’s lives,” Carlin says. “You play an old song and then all of a sudden the person, even if they have Alzheimer’s, they come back to life. Even if it’s for a moment, it’s just so powerful. It was so cool to connect with Billy and get this going.”
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Author Of this post: Deborah Evans Price