Coming Out of ‘A Dark Tunnel,’ Joan Baez, Garth Brooks & More Reflect on Kennedy Center Honors

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Like everything else in the path of the pandemic, the 43rd Kennedy Center Honors are showing up differently than in previous years.

The 2020 class—Debbie Allen, Joan Baez, Garth Brooks, Midori and Dick Van Dyke—originally were to be honored in December but instead gathered in late May in Washington, D.C. Absent was the whirlwind weekend, crowded State Department dinner and red carpet rushes culminating in the main event where honorees typically sit adjacent to the president in the balcony of a packed 2,000-person opera house.

But like so many moments during the past 15 months, the Kennedy Center’s pivot brought its share of silver linings, which have the potential to make this year’s broadcast (Sunday, June 6 at 8 p.m. ET on CBS) one of the best yet.

Hosted by Gloria Estefan and produced by White Cherry Entertainment, the broadcast will feature a mash-up of in-person performances and remote tributes from a broad array of well-wishers who were available and happy to fete the honorees.

Paula Abdul, Phylicia Rashad, Shonda Rhimes and Tracee Ellis Ross are among those honoring Allen. Jackson Browne, Phoebe Bridgers, Tom Morello, Sturgill Simpson and Emmylou Harris are on tap for Baez. Brooks is lauded by Bradley Cooper, John Travolta, Wayne Gretzky and Jason Aldean, while Kelly Clarkson, James Taylor, Gladys Knight and Jimmie Allen perform his songs. Julie Andrews, Steve Martin, Bryan Cranston, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Chita Rivera, Derek Hough and Pentatonix take the stage for Van Dyke; and Bette Midler, John Lithgow and Yo-Yo Ma are among the talent on board for Midori.

Beyond the star-studded TV event, the benefits of the more intimate proceedings weren’t lost on the honorees, who spent a week together on the Kennedy Center’s newly expanded campus, and got an extended White House tour guided by President Joe Biden.

“There’s not the massive crowds, the massive parties… but there is another aspect of it that is more personal, more one on one,” Allen, whose work spans Fame to Grey’s Anatomy, said during a small press gathering. “We are spending more time together than most honorees ever did. We’ve been hanging out.”

“The blessing has been the level of sincerity,” echoed Brooks. “As a performer you often get dragged from here to there. We’ve gotten to move at our pace. I leave here as a fan of these people more than a fellow honoree because I got to know them.”

For Brooks, who along with his wife Trisha Yearwood provided musical dispatches from their home set-up Studio G, the past year of virtual connections provided yet another affirmation his fans’ devotion.

“It’s funny… you don’t have to have a big stage. You can show up in jeans and a ball cap and they treat you the same as if you’re live on stage in front of a stadium,” he said. “I think what I’ve learned is they’ve always allowed me to be who I am. Fat, skinny, old, young, on pitch, off pitch, good night, bad night.”

“I can’t be more thrilled,” Van Dyke, who recently celebrated his 95th birthday, said of receiving the honor. “How I got here, I don’t know, and I’m not going to ask.”

Of his bounty of work through the decades, he cited The Dick Van Dyke Show, created by Carl Reiner and on air 1961-66, as his favorite. “My best memory is from the five years of our series we did with Carl. It was never work; I just loved every minute of it,” he said. “Carl had a good idea at the beginning. He said, ‘I don’t want to hear anything about the news of the day, or any slang of the day… I want everything to be believable. I don’t care how crazy it gets, as long as it could possibly happen.’ “

The return to live arts performances in much of the world—and the first Honors of the Biden Administration—was top of mind for the honorees, who converged in the nation’s capital one week before Biden proposed $201 million to fund the National Endowment for the Arts. The allocation would augment the NEA’s budget by $33.5 million, or 20 percent, and represent the greatest dollar increase in funding since the organization was founded in 1965.

“Coming out of this very dark time of the pandemic, being able to see the arts coming back into our lives again, live, in person,” made the Honors special, noted Midori. “This is also encouragement for me, as well as a motivation to be able to continue to connect with others, to collaborate, to create.”

“It feels like we’re coming out of a dark tunnel and there’s a possibility again for arts and culture,” said Baez, whose folk music helped elevate the counterculture scene in the ’60s.

Reflecting on the current social and civil rights reckoning, she noted: “It’s bringing out white supremacy to be what it is, that we see it more clearly. It remains to be seen whether seeing it more clearly as white supremacy—and that people are really suffering under that—whether we come through that having learned from it or whether we kind of go under with it. I think after the last four years we can’t do anything but come up and learn something, and try to help people experience a healthy life no matter what your status is, no matter what your color is.”

Baez said her own protest music, along with that of “the Joni Mitchells, the Dylans and eventually the Beatles and Rolling Stones” arose during the 10-year period when “there was this explosion of talent and people more willing to get involved in ‘good trouble.’ And what was happening politically and all around us also helped move us together,” she said.

“So now we’re looking for that talent again. I don’t think that will happen again; I do think there are many writers out there writing meaningful songs. I think they have a difficulty finding platforms. I would encourage songwriters to be willing to take a risk and move into good trouble.”

Allen said receiving her rainbow lanyard this year in particular represents “a level of respect that is so appreciated. And in this moment, after the last four years, it means taking a breath again and breathing life back into why the performing arts are so vital in our lives and our children’s lives.”

Brooks took the opportunity to share his approach to politics. “Politically, I stand with this: I believe in love, and I believe in the best person for the job, whatever that person is. Love is going to be the thing that gets my vote,” he said. “There’s a gap right now, and we’ve got to find a way to build that bridge. Right now we’re divided, right now we need to fix that. So if my service is somehow getting to help that—and it’s going to take every one of us—I’m in.”

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