Kristian Bush, Indigo Girls and others present unique birthday tribute to President Jimmy Carter
President Jimmy Carter will be musically fêted for his 96th birthday from artists, including Georgia's Kristian Bush and the Indigo Girls, Eddie Vedder and Duff McKagan on instruments built from the wood from trees on Carter's land.
Credit: Jill Stuckey
Credit: Jill Stuckey
By Melissa Ruggieri, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Oct 1, 2020
Musicians played instruments made from wood from Carter’s trees.
Of the numerous well wishes former President Jimmy Carter will receive this week for his 96th birthday, some of the most unique will come from the music community.
A series of artists, including Eddie Vedder, Duff McKagan of Guns N' Roses, ukulele virtuoso Jake Shimabukuro, and Georgia’s Kristian Bush and The Indigo Girls, self-recorded musical tributes for Carter, which were presented to him shortly before his Oct. 1 birthday.
But there is meaning in these bestowals beyond sentiment.
In October 2018, Carter partnered with the World Tree organization to harvest 15 acres of the former president’s Paulownia trees, which regrow from the stump as many as seven times after harvesting, without replanting.
From those trees on Carter’s land in Plains — and with his input — “The President Carter Legacy Collection” sprouted an assembly of 12 instruments, including four acoustic guitars, two ukuleles, two mandolins and four electric guitars.
In April, guitar maker Todd Lunneborg, who recruited most of the luthiers for the project, visited Carter and wife, Rosalynn, in Plains and sat about 30 feet away in their garden to debut the instrument. (Watch some of the performance and instrument production on the World Tree YouTube page.) While there, Lunneborg beamed in Jason Kostal to chat with them. Kostal, who made the specific guitar Lunneborg played for the Carters, included a special message in Morse code in the inlay on the back of the guitar: Beat Navy. It was a sly nod from the Army veteran intended to elicit a chuckle from Carter, a graduate of the rival U.S. Naval Academy.
But that wasn’t the end of the connection between Carter and the instruments.
“Normally, (Carter) has a pianist play for him on his birthday, but we knew with the lockdown that wasn’t going to be possible,” said Ross Grayson Bell, narrative director for World Tree. “We didn’t want him to have a sad birthday, so we went to all of these musicians to ask, ‘Would you play an instrument made from President Carter’s lumber and give him a shoutout?’ It was more than just a birthday tribute; it was also about his advocacy for maintaining a sustainable future.”
The Indigo Girls performed a cover song in honor of President Carter's 96th birthday using guitars made from wood from trees on his land. Courtesy World Tree
About two months ago, Bell started his outreach, locking into musicians who have been vocal about their environmental activism, such as Vedder and The Indigo Girls (with their Honor the Earth organization), as well as those with area ties, such as Bush.
“When I wrote to the Indigos, it was an instant response,” Bell said. As an additional tie-in with Carter, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers also performed for him at his 75th birthday celebration.
Bush, too, has a roundabout history with Carter, who was a professor at Emory University when the Sugarland star was a student.
“I’ve been orbiting him for a while, and he’s always been this magical human being to me,” Bush said. “When Carter became president, there was this unbelievable pride in someone from the South that eclipsed all things political…he brought not only honor and respect to the Southeast and Georgia, but is an incredible testament to leave things better than you found them, no matter where you go.”
Sugarland's Kristian Bush penned an original song for President Carter's 96th birthday, using a guitar made from wood from trees on Carter's land. Courtesy World Tree
While the other musicians — including No Doubt’s Tom Dumont (who wore a vintage Carter/Mondale pin on his guitar strap for his performance) and Jerry Cantrell — played a cover song of their choosing, Bush was moved to pen an original.
He initially planned to work out an interesting arrangement of “Happy Birthday,” but when he picked up the acoustic guitar sent to him by World Tree (the musicians had to return the instruments after self-recording their testimonials), the wood spoke to him creatively.
“I went out on my front porch to play it, and I started thinking about the story of all of these guitars (made from the Paulownia timber) and how those trees will literally grow back from a stump,” Bush said. “I started writing, ‘I’m the last tree in the yard’ and was like, oh my God, there is a song in this guitar.”
The lyrics to Kristian Bush's original song, "The Last Tree in the Yard," that he penned for President Carter. Courtesy Kristian Bush
Credit: Courtesy Kristian Bush
Credit: Courtesy Kristian Bush
“Last Tree in the Yard” was written in about 15 minutes, and upon reflection, Bush realized that the song encompassed multiple meanings.
“Was this me saying that President Carter is the last tree, or is it about the tree that made this guitar? I think all of it,” Bush said. “I just imagined what it would be like to be the last statesman. That’s what he represents to me — the person who has seen all of the storms and will grow back from a stump.”
About the Author
Melissa Ruggieri has covered music and entertainment for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution since 2010 and created the Atlanta Music Scene blog. She's kept vampire hours for more than two decades and remembers when MTV was awesome.