Charlottesville by Bryan Toney is a song about watching the media coverage of an appalling tragedy in your own backyard and realising you can no longer pretend that race hatred is something that happens far away to other people. Sounding like The Mountain Goats if they were fronted by Stuart Murdoch from Belle and Sebastian, and with the quietly boyish charm and flowing locks of a late-Nineties George Harrison, Toney - like the young female activist whose death inspired the song - gently but firmly urges us to "pay attention".
She could have been my next-door neighbour…
In November 2016, 32 year-old civil rights activist Heather Heyer from Charlottesville, Virginia, changed her Facebook cover image to display a plain, purple block with white writing, repeating the anonymous aphorism: If you're not outraged, you're not paying attention. In August the following year she was one of the many local people compelled to counter-demonstrate when neo-Nazi hate groups from around the USA descended on Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally. They selected Charlottesville ostensibly to protest at a decision by the people of the city to remove a statue of Robert E Lee, the Confederate general and defender of American slavery.
During the demonstration, a 20-year-old man from Ohio deliberately drove his car into the crowd of peaceful protestors injuring 28 and killing Heather Heyer. President Donald Trump reacted by blaming "many sides" for outbreaks of violence during the Charlottesville demonstrations.
Bryan Toney wrote his song two days later.
"I watched the events in Charlottesville unfold live on streaming TV that weekend," recalls Toney. "I only live about a three hour drive away from Charlottesville so this felt like it was happening in my back yard. As I heard those words a day or so later, I thought she perfectly communicated the problem many Americans have - not paying attention - and was immediately inspired to write the song, which I completely wrote in less than 15 minutes once the emotions started pouring out. I've found some of my more powerful songs tend to come very quickly."
"She could have been my next-door neighbour," sings Toney, "He could have lived down my street. Either way I didn't see it coming; now I got a ringside seat".
Very Fine People
The city of Charlottesville was back in the news in April 2019 when Donald Trump tried to rewrite history by claiming that his infamous comment about the "very fine people" involved in violent racist protests in 2017 was a reference to concerned Americans who were protesting about their national heritage.
"I was talking about people that went [to the rally] because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E Lee, a great general," he said. "People were there protesting the taking down of the monument of Robert E Lee, everybody knows that."
But it's worth reiterating that the Unite the Right rally was not about that statue - as neo-Nazi website The Daily Stormer promised a few days earlier: "Although the rally was initially planned in support of the Lee Monument, which the Jew Mayor and his Negroid Deputy have marked for destruction, it has become something much bigger than that. It is now an historic rally, which will serve as a rallying point and battle cry for the rising Alt-Right movement."
"One of the benefits (if you can call it that!) of the current administration is that it is exposing - and unfortunately temporarily empowering - parts of the dark underbelly of the US (ie. racism, sexism, corrupt politicians)," says Toney. "The chorus in Charlottesville is a call to wake up and stop pretending that we’ve already effectively dealt with these issues."
Cone of Uncertainty
Toney says he "wanted to be a rock star" when he was a young man but "went down more conventional career paths". He founded a software development company and then went into academia, teaching entrepreneurship at the School of Management at Georgia Tech, at Appalachian State University and eventually the University of North Carolina Greensboro (UNCG). But by 2015, music was beginning to claw its way back into his life. He started writing songs and doing spots at open mic nights, culminating with his debut album release, With a Y, in 2017.
"Just as I was finishing my first album, my university job was eliminated, so I decided to take this blessing in disguise and pursue music full-time," he says. This year, thoughts of the unpredictable path his life has taken provided the title for his second album, Cone of Uncertainty, a phrase often used in his neck of the woods when attempting to predict the path of a hurricane. "We all start out in a general direction," says Toney, "but factors steer us to the left or right and either impede our progress or help push us along and make us stronger."
Toney is optimistic about the future of the US, thanks to what he calls "strong, pragmatic millennial leaders emerging all across the country". And the same can be said of a new breed of musicians with a social conscience, recalling the Sixties heyday of the protest song.
"Music has always helped inform my sense of right and wrong," he concludes, "from songs from the late Sixties and early Seventies like Ohio and Big Yellow Taxi to very recent songs like Gary Clark Jr's This Land. Times like then and now tend to unleash a lot of creativity and positive audience responses. People are hungry for ways to express themselves in times like this when there seems to be so much wrong in the world."
Learn more about Bryan Toney here:
About the curator: Jon Ewing
After graduating from the University of Keele in England with a degree in Politics and American Studies, Jon worked as editor of a music and entertainment magazine before spending several years as a freelance writer and, with the advent of the internet, a website designer, developer and consultant. He lives in Reading, home to one of the world's most famous and long-running music festivals, which he has attended every year since 1992.