Nashville on U2

U2 (photo: Alexandre Meneghini/AP)

Though U2’s concert tonight at Vanderbilt Stadium marks the first time the band has performed in Nashville in 30 years, the Irish rock giants have frequently crossed paths with Music City in the decades in between. The band handed lead vocal duties over to Johnny Cash on “The Wanderer,” which closed out their 1993 album Zooropa; Cowboy Jack Clement produced several tracks on 1988’s Rattle and Hum; and Kings of Leon took notes on how to grow into arena rockers after touring with the band in 2005.

Another league of artists has been working with the band — particularly frontman Bono — in the past decade. But they haven’t been hitting any stages or studios. They’ve been discussing ways to fight poverty and preventable disease, particularly in Africa, and how to inspire others to join them.

“Bono’s a dreamer in a lot of ways, and I think that’s contagious,” says Dan Haseltine, frontman for Nashville rock group Jars of Clay. “He finds a way to communicate that (artists) can find a foothold, so they say, ‘There’s something that I can do.’ ”

Haseltine and Bono first met in Nashville in 2002, while Bono was on a U.S. speaking tour for his DATA (Debt, AIDS, Trade in Africa) nonprofit. They talked about needs in the country of Malawi, where Haseltine was headed for his first trip to Africa. Today, Haseltine’s band operates Blood:Water Mission, an organization that fights HIV/AIDS and water crises in sub-Saharan Africa by providing clean water resources.

Among the group’s many famous advocates is Bono, who’s issued supportive statements and invited the band to be part of the Live 8 benefit concerts in 2005. Haseltine and his bandmates will attend tonight’s concert as guests of Bono’s ONE campaign — which they’ve been aligned with since its founding in 2004.

Contemporary Christian music star Michael W. Smith was part of ONE’s launch and has joined forces with Bono for numerous causes, including working alongside him with President George W. Bush for PEPFAR — President’s Emergency Plan for Aids Relief. In an email to The Tennessean, Smith called the experience inspiring, recalling that Bono “was not going to take no for an answer.”

“(He’s) extremely passionate to see good overcome evil and to fight for injustice to come to an end,” Smith says.

Not only has Bono’s relationships with figures such as Smith and Haseltine endured, but new Nashville connections continue to be made. Blood:Water-aligned singer-songwriter Brandon Heath met Bono last month at a U2 concert in California. The two spent the entirety of their conversation talking about one of their favorite places on earth: Uganda. Heath thought he’d be starstruck but says he was immediately put at ease.

“He climbs down from his tower of being the greatest rock star on earth, and he stands with common people and inspires people like us wealthy Americans to do something better with our influence and our money,” he says. “That’s been a great inspiration to me as an artist.”

That inspiration is hitting fans, as well. ONE volunteers will be on hand at today’s concert to urge audience members to join the organization. They’ve been signing up members by the thousands at recent stops. The grassroots campaign might stand in stark contrast to the massive production that is U2’s 360 Tour — which became the highest-grossing concert tour in history earlier this year — but Haseltine says Bono and his band are best at serving their causes on the biggest stages possible.

“It took Bono’s 40,000-foot perspective to be the umbrella where we can all come in and say, ‘All right. Now what are we going to do at the ground level?’ ”