The ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp, a 10-year partnership between ACM and the Vanderbilt Kennedy Center for Excellence in Developmental Disabilities, is defined by two key elements: magic and family. These qualities permeate throughout the one-week program that brings individuals with Williams Syndrome from around the country to Nashville, providing musical enrichment and education while also studying Williams Syndrome.
The cornerstone of the camp is a songwriting program that illuminates their affinity for music, as country artists including Lady Antebellum, Chris Young, Michael Ray and more help these individuals write, record and perform an original song, sharing in an inspiring experience for both the campers and artists alike.
“It’s in the memories we make”
On a peaceful morning in June, spirited voices are pouring from Fondren Hall at Vanderbilt University, the Lifting Lives campers singing a range of songs from “Island Time” to “Old Town Road” in preparation for the songwriting session. As Lady A, Joy Williams and hit country songwriter Ross Copperman enter the room, they’re met with enthusiastic cheers, high-fives and hugs, setting the tone for a heartwarming experience to follow.
The three beloved artists begin the session by gathering around an acoustic guitar to unveil the chorus they had written for a simple, yet empathetic song titled “The Way You Love.” “It’s in the way that you love, it’s in the way that you care, and the lives that you touch, and the moments you share, it’s in the give and not take, it’s in the rising above, it’s in the memories we make, it’s in the way that you love,” they deliver with gentle harmonies. Responding with passionate cheers of approval, the campers immediately connect to the song’s meaning and launch into a lively brainstorming session where phrases like “inner peace,” “beauty of being different,” “unity,” “courage” and “love” shape the humble thought into an empowering message. “Life’s about peace, life’s about harmony, life’s about joy and you and me, and life’s about dreams that we must follow,” they sing, the beauty in their voices filling the room with a glow.
“Really, we were just kind of receiving all the inspiration from them,” Lady A’s Dave Haywood shares with Sounds Like Nashville after the session. “It felt like they were making it their own, and it felt right,” adds Charles Kelley. “It’s hard to describe, it just felt like we were all in it together.” Impacted at a deep level, Hillary Scott noted her desire to channel their vulnerability into her own life. “I think as a songwriter, just saying it purely is always a win. I feel like that’s going to be the way to connect and to hit people in the heart and that’s one of the things I’m walking away from going, they are so in tune with how they feel and how to say what they feel, I want to carry that into every area of my life, not just the songwriting room,” she conveys of the experience. “It was like other worldly, it felt so special.”
Williams identifies with Scott’s sentiment. Coming in to the session with an “open palm stance,” Williams, a first time participant, says she was fully committed to the mission of the Lifting Lives camp after receiving the invitation from Copperman, citing one of her favorite aspects as collaborative creativity. “I love the fact that it doesn’t matter what our differences might be, when we sit down and we put our heads together, something beautiful can come out of it. It’s just such a beautiful experience to share and create and be together like this,” she explains, adding that she took away a sense of “deep respect” working with the campers. “I think they paved the way to showing us what true joyfulness looks like and bravery. I just loved how free they felt in sharing their ideas and their enthusiasm and I feel like we can all stand to learn a little bit more about that. I feel like I walked away with friends and with a deeper grounding and a sense of gratitude.”
“Life’s about harmony”
After days of hard work memorizing and rehearsing the song, the campers brought their inspiring message into the famed Ocean Way studio on Music Row for an official recording session. Their infectious energy enveloped the room, cheerfully greeting each person in their path. Before the session, Williams had recorded her vocals on the track, and as the campers listened to their words come to life through music for the first time, many became emotional. “It makes me tear up inside,” one camper said thoughtfully. They carried this passion and emotion into the studio, wrapping their arms around one another and swaying as they sang from the heart, expressing the familial bond they so often speak to. “We all sing like a family,” one camper said, another exclaiming, “We believed in us.”
Two of the many people who also believe in them are Young and Tenille Townes, both of whom surprised the campers the day of the recording session. Young has participated in the camp for several years, revering how these individuals are given a space to display their voices through song. “I love that ACM does this every year. I love that they give them an outlet to create something and be really proud of something that they all got together and did and it’s amazing,” he raves. “The songs are amazing every year. There’s just so much joy that they pour into them, and getting to be a small part of that process is just awesome.”
For Townes, her introduction was made memorable by the overwhelming radiance of the campers. From the moment she walked in the room, her positivity matched theirs, embraced with love as she made her way into the group, learning their names and stories. Like Young, Townes remarked on the energy she felt watching them sway in unison as they sang, admitting she was “on the verge of tears.” “It’s an overwhelming feeling standing in the middle of them listening to themselves going ‘we just made that.’ They’re just so proud of what they made and that’s a really beautiful gift that music can give somebody is just that feeling of joy,” she reflects. “They have such a special way of loving. They’re all just so friendly and such a warm embrace and I think that’s a bright light for them to give to the world.”
“It’s in the way that you love”
One of the many special memories made through Lifting Lives is when the campers perform their work on one of music’s most coveted stages, the Grand Ole Opry. “It’s just magical,” says Katelin, a 5-year camp participant from Tampa, Fla., about being on the famous stage. “Everyone cheers you on and everything, it’s just out of this world.”
This statement proved to be true as the energy was buzzing as the elated campers-turned-artists made their way into the historic circle with duet partner, Ray. Standing side by side, their harmonious voices carried each meaningful word up to the rafters, leaving a profound impact on the packed Opry house, who rewarded them with a standing ovation even before song’s end.
The experience had an equally powerful effect on Ray, who says he became “choked up” on stage, feeling a sense of pride in the campers. “It’ll go down for me as just as special of my debut,’” he says sincerely. “The song is a message that needs to be heard, but it’s special when it’s their voices singing it. When you see those kids and you realize that you’re a part of something way bigger than you kind of puts everything in perspective.”
The magic of ACM Lifting Lives Music Camp
Master songwriter and producer Copperman, found a way to transfer the magic from the camp into his own passion project. A vital part of the camp since 2012, Copperman has immersed himself in every aspect from writing and recording the song to bringing his children to the Opry show to help cheer on the campers. Initially on the ACM Board, he describes how the ACM Lifting Lives mission left such a significant impression that he’s now on the board of the organization. “I couldn’t imagine my life without being involved in some way in this camp,” he expresses. His participation has also become an investment with the creation of his nonprofit, Song Farm. In early 2019, he gave back to his hometown in Virginia by building a recording studio at his alma mater, Glenvar High School, with the ACM Lifting Lives board donating $10,000 that enabled him to purchase equipment. “I wanted to do this on another scale all over the country and schools that didn’t have the opportunities that others would have in a bigger city,” he explains. “It’s a direct result of me seeing the impact on these campers to then go do it myself.”
For camp director Hailee Hunt- Hawkins, the magic is in the community that’s built amongst the campers, many of whom establish lasting relationships with one another that thrive outside the program. Between dance parties and “tough talks” where they discuss social boundaries and how to best take care of themselves, these factors contribute to the important goal of enabling the campers to be the brightest versions of themselves. “I think that our campers have a very unique insight into how to pull the best out of other people that most people don’t see the beauty in the world that they see, not in the same way,” Hunt-Hawkins observes. “They feel things so deeply and in such a raw way, they’re able to really talk about that and have tremendous lyrical and emotional insight that is something that you don’t see everyday.”
Katelin feels this energy too. Between building friendships with her fellow campers that she calls siblings or feeling like a country music star herself now that she’s engaged with so many of them, Lifting Lives Music Camp has become a sanctuary for her and many of her peers. “It’s a magical camp. Everyone gets along and we’re a family. There’s been so many people that return and they’re like my brothers and sisters. They watch over us all the time. It’s beautiful,” she describes.
Hunt-Hawkins also admires how she hears the campers’ stories in “The Way You Love” and notes that each year, the songs consistently embrace family and community, two vital elements to the foundation of the camp.
“Singing it we all get goosebumps because this song will take the world to different levels,” Katelin predicts of the words that dance in one’s head while the meaning behind them resonate in the heart long after the song’s conclusion, “like magical levels.”