Spring is a wonderful season in Santa Barbara. Jacaranda trees erupt in purple flowers; the air is fresh and crisp; the sun rides higher in the sky each day. Tourists and residents alike stroll State Street, shopping, dining, and enjoying the lovely weather, beautiful views, and friendly aura of the American Riviera. This April and early May have been no different.
It’s shocking, then, to remember that a mere five months ago, our coastal Eden was threatened by California’s largest wildfire in history; that the streets were deserted, shops and restaurants closed due to the unbearable amount of toxic ash blanketing the city; and that the winter holidays were virtually canceled as residents evacuated and then returned and then evacuated again.
Then, just as thousands of first responders heroically extinguished the Thomas Fire in the front country, Mother Nature unleashed a rare rain microburst that dropped a half inch of water in five minutes onto the charred landscape, causing a debris flow that brought the denuded mountainside racing down to the sea, indiscriminately taking with it homes and lives.
While there is a sense of normalcy again and even joie de vivre, full recovery — physical, psychological, financial, and emotional — will take years. Fortunately, there’s been an astonishing outpouring of support for those affected by the fire and debris flow that has come in myriad forms, from bucket brigades to fundraising concerts.
On Saturday, May 12, country superstar — and longtime Montecito resident — Brad Paisley is joining the ranks of community members pitching in by hosting an evening of music, dubbed The 2nd Responders, with proceeds going to several area organizations. The event takes place at the Santa Barbara Bowl, where his pal and Montecito neighbor Ellen Degeneres will join Paisley onstage.
Born in West Virginia, Paisley released his debut album, Who Needs Pictures, in 1999, which produced four hits on the country music Billboard charts. Since then, the singer/songwriter/guitar player, whose primary residence is in Nashville, has recorded 10 more studio albums, won three Grammys and 14 Academy of Country Music Awards, and become a member of the Grand Ole Opry, among other impressive achievements.
Paisley and his wife, actress Kimberly Williams-Paisley, first became acquainted with Santa Barbara when they spent their honeymoon here after marrying in 2003. “We would frequently take a weekend and get away from L.A., and Santa Barbara became our destination on the weekends,” Paisley told me over the phone last week. “At some point, I finally just said, ‘We need a place there.’ Montecito and Santa Barbara and that whole area, it’s just so magical.”
As for The 2nd Responders benefit, Paisley said that it “is to help some of the [people who] are falling through the cracks,” such as those in the food service industry. So, in addition to raising funds via the concert, Paisley will be patronizing various eateries in town and inviting people to join him.
“I have quite a few fans who are coming in from various places [for the show],” explained Paisley “So I’m going to have sort of a scavenger hunt throughout the weekend, where I say, ‘Hey, who wants to go to Scoop and get gelato on Coast Village Road? I’ll meet you there in 30 minutes.’” He may also do the same for dinner before the show, “just kind of showing off our town a little bit and helping the businesses,” he said. “I was there last week, and it’s starting to look like they’re building as opposed to just cleaning up …. But it’s starting to move into that phase of, ‘Well, what do you do now?’ And that’s kind of what this concert’s for.”
The following is an edited version of our conversation.
I think there is a perception that because it’s so beautiful, Santa Barbarans don’t have problems. But we have suffered our fair share of tragedy. What sets us apart, perhaps, is the immediate and incredible community support. It’s been inspiring. I’ve made lots of friends [here] over the years, and just [watched] the way [people have pitched in]. [For example,] I would call a friend of mine and see what he’s doing today, and he would say, “Oh, we’re heading up to [so and so’s place] to work on his house and help clean out.” The heartbreak, though, has been something; everybody knew somebody, even if just vicariously, [who was affected].
When the fire started, we packed up — we were going to spend Christmas in Tennessee anyway — and left a little early because of the air. But I never thought [the Thomas Fire] was on its way, because it started in Ventura, which is 35 miles away. I was trying to tell somebody in Nashville that [Ventura] is the equivalent of a town like Murfreesboro, which is probably about 30 miles away. If a fire breaks out in Murfreesboro and you need to worry [about it reaching you] in Nashville, that’s strange. That’s something new to me to get used to out in California.
Then it took off, and it was a matter of just checking hourly with people as the fire started to advance on the mountains. A couple of my friends took some photos from my yard — you could see flames. It was just so weird thinking, “Is this all going up?” And then we were out of the woods.
Until the rain came. And who would’ve thought? Who would’ve thought Coast Village was in the line of fire?
Is your hometown similar in size to Santa Barbara? I come from a really small town. My hometown has about 1,200 people. But Franklin is this town 20 miles south of Nashville; it reminds me of Santa Barbara a little bit … I try to explain to people who don’t realize what happened [in Montecito] … saying, “Listen, it’s like downtown Franklin, down by the restaurants and the shops and everything, just mud rolls through.” And they can’t fathom that …. And the interstate, and the loss of life — I mean, it’s just such a strange, strange thing. I just felt like I needed to do something. I think all of us who have any ties there, whether that’s Jack Johnson or Katy Perry …. Ellen and I were texting throughout and saying, “Can you believe this?” When we decided to do this concert, she said, “I want to be a part of this.”
Which organizations are going to be the beneficiaries of this concert? One is called Restaurants Care …. It helps restaurants workers who have been so hurt — none of them worked from December to January, really. … And the Montecito YMCA, and the Unity Shoppe, which is near and dear to my heart.
They do wonderful work. They’re the best model for that kind of charity that’s ever been conceived. … And then the Santa Barbara Farmers Market. They were hugely impacted …. During the fire, no one was shopping. And then there was the mudslide …. And we’re also helping [Visit Santa Barbara’s] Santa Barbara Shine Campaign.
I’ve heard people say, “Montecito, they have tons of money; they’ll be fine.” And that makes me bristle. I’ve heard that too. That’s just somebody trying to make it okay in their mind, but it doesn’t help …. The thing is, there are a lot of people who were not able to go to work during that entire time, when fire was raging. And then there was the mudslide, where people lost lives.
Nobody would say that about the victims of Katrina, but it’s kind of the same thing in that the town was hit by a natural disaster. It’s the same thing; it really is. When you’re talking about somebody’s home being completely destroyed, it doesn’t matter what that home cost; it was their home …. I feel like we can’t ignore what happened and just be completely upbeat about it. … Though this concert is meant to shine some positive light on this. It’s time to sort of celebrate the way this community rallied. …
There have been very generous people, like the video company that provides video on my tours — they donated a screen for the concert. … Basically, anybody who could give away anything for the concert did. Amtrak is going to bring people up from Los Angeles; they’ve got this initiative called [Hug] the Coast.
I’ve sort of hidden in Santa Barbara as long as I’ve been there. And when this fire came through, I felt like I couldn’t do that anymore. I felt like, I can’t just reap the benefits of living [in Santa Barbara] and not do whatever I can to help …. What got me choked up was the day that tickets went on sale [for the concert] at the Bowl. There was a line that stretched all the way down the block. It was really neat to see it because any questions in my mind about, “Does the community want this? Is it too soon?” [were gone]. It was touching to feel, “Oh, this is great; people seem to be fired up.”
What is the structure for the concert? [Ellen’s] going to be funny, and I’m going to sing.
You can be pretty funny yourself. I’m going to try to be funny.
Well, that’s all we can ask. Exactly.