American Anthems is a new PBS series celebrating everyday heroes with original songs written and performed by some of country music’s biggest stars. The six-episode music-driven documentary series features acclaimed breakout singer-songwriter Lindsay Ell.
Each episode of American Anthems follows a different featured country star as they meet a local hero and learn about the transformative experience that inspired their commitment to making a positive change in their community. Then, working with a celebrated songwriter — including Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, collaborators Billy Montana and Adam Wood, and Bill Sherman — the country star secretly turns the hero’s story of kindness, hard work and perseverance into an original song. At the end of the episode, the hero is surprised with a once-in-a-lifetime performance of the powerful anthem by the artist while surrounded by family.
The show has received wide critical praise, and now we are gearing for a lengthy award season, starting with the Grammys. The track “Let the Words Come Out” by Ell has been submitted in the category of “Best Song Written for Visual Media.”
The episode that features Ell’s “Let the Words Come Out” is centered around Greta McClain, a former police detective in the sexual assault division who suffered a devasting sexual assault of her own. While dealing with the self-imposed shame, McClain began talking with other survivors on social media and decided to start Silent No More, an organization that provides a safe space for survivors of sexual abuse. Ell, also a survivor of sexual assault, instantly bonds with McClain as they engage in a day of creative therapy.
Over the past three years, Ell has shared the stage with some of the biggest acts in the world touring with Keith Urban, Brad Paisley, and Sugarland. She has made multiple appearances on the CMA Awards stage including playing with Carrie Underwood and performing with distinguished country group, Little Big Town, alongside other powerhouse female artists in one the biggest moments of the 2019 CMA Awards where she was also nominated for Musical Event of the Year. Ell’s nominations do not stop there, she is a two-time 2020 ACM nominee for New Female Artist of the Year and Music Event of the Year.
We got to talk to Ell to learn more about her experience on the show, the writing process, and much more.
Can you tell us a little about what specifically drew you to a life of music and songwriting? What makes it so important to you?
It’s amazing to be able to wake up and do what you love for a living. I will never take that for granted because, as they say, if you can wake up every morning and feel like you’re living your dream, you truly never need to work a day in your life! There is something so healing about the power of art that it felt very instinctual, even as a little girl, to want to lean into it. Now I don’t think I would recognize my life in the same way if it wasn’t centered around music and songwriting.
At its core, what is the desired impact of your music on your audience, and what do you do in your songwriting and production to evoke those emotions?
Music is this incredible thing that connects us as human beings. I feel that it’s the universal language that everyone can feel regardless of what language you speak, where you come from, how old you are, etc. I want my music to be able to connect people deeper to who they are and help inspire them to go after their dreams in life. I try to write my songs from the most vulnerable place I can. I feel that when we can all realize that we’re all just human beings, putting on pants one leg at a time, it brings everyone’s guard down and allows us to listen to lyrics and really identify with them on an even level.
As an artist who has toured extensively both as a headliner and as a supporting act to country greats like Keith Urban and Brad Paisley, what has been the most important lesson you’ve learned about performing for different audiences?
I have been so fortunate to share the stage with incredible performers, Keith and Brad being two of them. Every opportunity I’ve had to tour with them I’ve learned how to work an audience, which I think is the most valuable lesson for anyone that has our job. When we’re on tour I play the same songs each and every night but, by watching masters like Keith and Brad, I learn how to deliver a completely different show. It allows me to keep learning every night, which I know helps strengthen my live show. I’m very grateful for that.
How did you first hear about the American Anthems project, and what made you want to participate?
My team called me to talk about it and as soon as I heard what this show was about I knew I wanted to be a part of it. I truly believe that there are so many unsung heroes, people who are just out there, living among us, whose stories deserve to be told. I’m so grateful that we got to tell Greta’s.
When tasked with finding your hero to use as the inspiration for your song, how did you choose Greta McClain, and what was it like spending the day with her and getting to know her?
The American Anthems producers paired Greta and me together because of the similarities in our personal stories. I felt so fortunate to be able to shine a light on everything she has accomplished and how she continues to support others through her organization Silent No Longer.
When working with singer/songwriter Kristian Bush of the band Sugarland to retell Greta’s story musically, how did you go about deciding the tone and instrumentation of the song given the sensitive topic?
It is always challenging to write a song about challenging subjects, but I knew that Kristian would be the best writing partner to make sure we got this one right. He’s such an incredible songwriter that continue to learn so much from and I’m really proud of what we wrote together in honor of Greta.
What was the experience like being able to write this ode for a personal hero and then also get the opportunity to play it for her in person? What emotions were running through your head when you first sang it for her?
All I wanted was for Greta to connect with the song and feel like it represented her story in the best possible way. Of course, we were nervous to sing it for her the first time, but I really think we wrote a song that gives voice to her story, her compassion and how she has become an incredible support to others as part of her mission as a survivor. I hope she loves the song as much as we loved writing it about her story.
What kind of effect do you hope American Anthems has on its audience, and why should people be interested?
There is so much television that feeds highlights the negativity that surrounds us and it was so refreshing to create something heartwarming and uplifting. Tuning in will allow people to watch stories about good humans doing empowering things in their communities and, personally, I think that’s exactly what we all need more of these days!!
Do you have any more upcoming projects that people should look out for?
I just wrapped filming the auditions for Season Two of Canada’s Got Talent, which will air this spring in Canada. I’m also back in the studio working on my next album and looking forward to one last tour late next month before taking out all of my Christmas decorations and getting ready for some serious quality time with my friends and family to wrap up the year!