As patrons lined up outside the Wildhorse Saloon in downtown Nashville dressed in their finest 80s garb for the 3rd annual Dance Party to End ALZ, they were not only helping to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Association, but also keep the spirits alive of those impacted by the disease.
Created and co-hosted by Kimberly Williams-Paisley, the 80s-themed event featured performances by her husband Brad Paisley, along with Sheryl Crow, Hunter Hayes, REO Speedwagon, Shenandoah and many more singing their favorite 80s hits to raise money and awareness for Alzheimer’s, a disease that 15.8 million people are living with in the U.S. while more than 16 million are caregivers, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.
Williams-Paisley was inspired to create the event after her mother, Linda Williams, passed away from dementia in 2016, a journey that she chronicled in her powerful book, Where the Light Gets In. Williams-Paisley turned her words into action by launching the dance party event in 2017, with proceeds going toward the Alzheimer’s Association to fund research. “When she [my mother] passed away, I just really felt like I wanted to seize the reins of the story and turn it from a tragedy into something positive,” Williams-Paisley explains to Sounds Like Nashville on the red carpet prior to the event.
Fundraising is in the family’s genes, as her mother also had a passion for raising money for such organizations as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research. Williams-Paisley now channels that benevolent spirit into her own efforts. “My mom saw it as she was giving people an opportunity to take a gift when she was asking them for money. ‘If you give me millions of X of dollars, you’re the one getting the gift because you are seeing how to change the world for the better,’” she describes, adding that her mother was a “partier” and loved music and dancing. “I thought ‘what a perfect way to honor her legacy to raise money.’”
Like Williams-Paisley, the event is particularly personal for Ashley Campbell, the daughter of country legend Glen Campbell, who passed away from Alzheimer’s in 2017 after a six-year battle with the disease. Before delivering a performance of “9 to 5” that would make Dolly Parton proud, Ashley remarked on her passion for science and finding a cure, while also encouraging the many ways to contribute to the cause, such as donating to care facilities to help families in need get access to resources.
“It’s important to me because I don’t want anyone else to have to go through what I went through, or what my dad went through. I want this to be a distant memory, I want Alzheimer’s to be forgettable,” she says. “My dad was very open to the public about what he was going through and he wanted to make a difference in any way he could. There’s so many different fronts for this war.”
The meaning of the evening also held significance for REO Speedwagon’s Kevin Cronin, whose mother Millie Cronin passed away from Lewy body dementia in August 2019. He shared the heartbreaking details about how his mother didn’t recognize him during her final years, but recalls the vibrant spirit she carried with her in life, referring to her as a “living, breathing Broadway musical.” “She grew up in difficult circumstances and rather than let those circumstances drag her down, she used it as fuel to make other people feel good. That’s something that I admire,” he praises. “She was unique, she was one of a kind really, and I watched as this disease just sucked the spirit out of her. And so anything that we can do to help find a cure, we’re down.”
Multi-time participant Hayes appreciates how the event infuses a sense of joy into such a serious topic, noting how he’s been close to people who had Alzheimer’s and are currently living with it, acknowledging how it does affect the spirits of those impacted. “I think it’s appropriate that we use music to kind of lift the spirit of the topic because I think that’s the thing that it hurts the most is people’s spirit,” he explains, citing education as an important part of bringing awareness to the issue. “I do believe that small steps mean big things, and so any small step forward that we can make is a big step.”
Crow, a first year performer at the event and friend of the Paisleys, shared that Alzheimer’s is “near and dear” to her heart, as a close friend of hers is currently serving as a caregiver for a loved one who has the disease. “It feels very celebratory. I think it’s also very inspiring,” she describes of the nature of the event. “This is a night of coming together to push humanity forward.”