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Grammy winners like Jennifer Nettles help tell heroes' stories in 'American Anthems'

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When a person inspires a song, the stakes are high, Grammy winner Jennifer Nettles says.

When there is a personal connection, “those are the things we are the most moved and touched by,” she explains.

So when producers pitched her the idea of writing songs about everyday heroes, the Sugarland singer was more than willing to join in. “Every hero deserves an anthem,” Nettles says. “You’re writing the stories of their lives in a certain way.”

In “American Anthems,” a six-part PBS series, she and other country artists meet people who have had an impact on others. The songwriters hear the stories, find the touchstones and go to work. At the end of the episode, the hero gets a performance of the song by the artist.

“The series celebrates the extraordinary stories of everyday Americans who are making a positive change in their communities,” says Bill Gardner, vice president of multiplatform programming and head of development at PBS.

Producers weren’t at a loss for subjects. Communities pointed them in the right direction; groups were eager to spotlight people who made a difference. “Many of them have gone through hardships in their own life and some have just noted an opportunity to help and they felt compelled to do it,” says series director Wes Edwards.

The subjects run the gamut – one woman pays for other people’s laundry, another strives to give books to students in low-income schools.

When Nettles heard about the concept, she was excited. “As a songwriter, as an actress, as a musical writer – whatever it might be, I am always a storyteller. This melds a couple of my favorite different worlds. The stories are here in the lives of these people.”

Nettles says she got to know her subject in a way she didn’t expect. “There are emotional moments that you share.”

When Nettles started singing, “the room just froze,” Executive Producer Dan Goodman says. “You could feel the connection and the energy in that room in the most palpable way. You could have heard a pin drop. It was so powerful.”

Nettles says that kind of response has been a part of all that she does. “I have built my art and my career off writing stories that are transformative to other people and writing stories that help them change.”

Going back to those Sugarland days, all of the big hit songs were about people trying to change. “What I hope is that my audience can also change with me because I am just as much of a changeling as the rest of the humans. I just happen to do it with art.

“One of the things I love about this show is it changes us with superhuman stories. What we do in art is we try to create a scenario where we can say, ‘I see my story in yours.’ Music does that so beautifully.”

Nettles says she can track her life by songs that had an impact: “Jagged Little Pill,” “Smells Like Teen Spirit,” “Closer to Fine.” “I can go back to Dolly Parton’s ‘Coat of Many Colors’ and the lessons that are there for us and what’s important in life.”

Goodman says there are enough stories for multiple seasons. “We are not asking people to come sit in some sterile environment,” he says. “We are spending a lot of time in their world, where they’re comfortable.”

That means “American Anthems” could be adapted for other media. NBCUniversal Syndication Studios is a co-producer; Believe Entertainment, an Oscar-winning studio, is also a partner.

“It’s one of the reasons we wanted to do it – pooling resources to make sure this has the biggest reach and the biggest appeal,” Goodman says.

“American Anthems” airs on PBS beginning June 24.

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