For the past fifty years, the two of us have devoted our lives to telling the story of America through songs and documentaries. We’ve covered millions of miles and visited thousands of diners, dance halls, truck stops, airports, classrooms, churches, museums and historic sites.
The wonder, beauty and brilliance of this country never ceases to amaze us. As we reflect on the rich experiences we’ve had crisscrossing the country, we wonder why there isn’t a national tradition for celebrating our hometowns.
We have a special day or week for just about everything, from Taco Day and Handbag Day to Name Your Car Day, but we do very little to honor our cities and towns. We decided to do something about it. Today we’re proud to represent more than 150 leaders, including iconic entertainers and officials from many of our nation’s preeminent community service, veterans, education, cultural and historical institutions, along with dozens of mayors, to announce “Honor Your Hometown,” an unprecedented campaign to recognize every American city.
Honoring America’s hometowns
The campaign is a strictly nonpartisan, volunteer-led effort with a simple but powerful purpose – to remind all of us that the experiences and values we have in common are far greater and more important than the issues that divide us.
Our theme comes from Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood. Garth says, “Let’s focus on the things that tie us, and not the things that divide us.” Trisha adds, “That whole hometown mentality is something we need to carry with us.” Our favorite thing about this initiative is that we’ve turned the tables and invited people to tell us a story.
We asked each participant to produce a 1-to-2 minute video telling us about their hometown. As you will see when you visit HonorYourHometown.com, the stories we received are inspiring and surprising – and filled with fun, love and hope. The first two people we approached with this idea were Colin Powell and Dolly Parton.
Powell embraced the idea and made the first tribute video for this campaign in honor of his home “street” – Kelly Street in the Bronx. With his passing last week, we appreciate more than ever that he wanted to share with America the great blessings his neighborhood, and the public schools of New York, especially City College of New York, gave him.
Our friend Parton was equally supportive, and in her tribute video she sings a verse of her classic hometown song, “My Tennessee Mountain Home,” which she humbly calls “just kind of like an everyday thing.”
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We all love Dolly for so many reasons, but one of her greatest qualities is the unending respect and affection she has always shown for the people and culture of the Great Smoky Mountains.
Then the idea took off. Astronaut Mark Vande Hei does backward somersaults in his hometown, the International Space Station. Chef Robert St. John tells the incredible story of Coney Island, a hot dog stand in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. The Trust for the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island tells us how donations from every American town helped build and maintain one of our greatest national treasures.
Chris Nikic, the first person with Down Syndrome to complete an Ironman competition, tells us about his love for his hometown of Maitland, Florida, but even more the love he feels for every hometown he has visited. There are stirring videos about the National Mall and the White House, and wonderful tributes to veterans from the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the American Legion.
Hometowns remind us of the past
Perhaps the most touching video comes from Tim Frank, the historian for Arlington National Cemetery, talking about the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
“Although Arlington is now his hometown,” he says, “he could have come from your hometown.”
There are also some laugh-out-loud videos such as the one from the Yogi Berra Museum, which has Yogi’s oldest son, Larry, and granddaughter, Lindsay, in a madcap race to tell us about all of the great ballplayer’s hometowns.
Honoring our hometowns might seem small or insignificant to some. We disagree. American democracy, the essence of our civic life, is built on a foundation of strong communities.
Oscar-winner Jon Batiste sums it up best: “(New Orleans) taught me the importance of all generations coming together and how everybody has something that they’re tied to that’s bigger than themselves.”
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There’s a saying in Nashville that it all begins with a song. As we were starting this project, Deana McCloud, with the Woody Guthrie Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, sent us a video with Woody’s original lyrics of “This Land Is Your Land.” That is our soundtrack.
The Honor Your Hometown Celebration will continue for the next month – and, we expect, even longer. We hope you will join the cause and tell us a story on social media about your hometown with the hashtag #HonorYourHomerown.
Ken Burns is a 15-time Emmy Award winning filmmaker who has produced some of the most critically acclaimed and watched documentaries of our time. Marty Stuart is a country music and bluegrass singer, songwriter and musician. He is a member of the Grand Ole Opry and Country Music Hall of Fame.