ETSU dean, country music star, former U.S. Senator create ‘An Essential Conversation’

Wykoff, Big Kenny and Frist in Nashville last month working on ‘An Essential Conversation.’

JOHNSON CITY (December 13, 2014) – When a country music star, a doctor-turned-senator and the dean of the College of Public Health at East Tennessee State University get together, there’s no telling where the conversation might lead.

While they come from three very different walks of life, Big Kenny of the country duo Big & Rich, former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist and ETSU Dean Dr. Randy Wykoff, it turns out, share a huge passion for improving the health and wellness of people all over the world.

And now, the three are setting their sights on doing just that as a team.

“It all started with ETSU’s Leading Voices in Public Health Lecture series. In October 2007, we invited Bill Frist to come speak about ‘Health Diplomacy: Using Medicine as Currency for Peace,’” Wykoff said. “Through him, I met Big Kenny, who came in 2010 and did a Leading Voices lecture titled ‘Personal Responsibility and Social Action: Sudan, Haiti and Appalachia.’”

The trio realized they share a passion for public health issues and began working together to create what turned into a 12-part series called, “An Essential Conversation: Things We Must Care About For a Better World.” The series takes a look at a dozen different “topics of importance” to the human condition, including food and water, poverty, education, the criminal justice system, and free speech.

“These are global issues in the sense of being issues that affect everyone,” Wykoff said. “They are things that can and should be dealt with by everyone. They’re issues that can be addressed, but it has to start with dialogue.”

The trio’s project aims to open up that dialogue among people all over the world.

“The crazy thing about people talking, we often come up with simple solutions to complex problems,” said Big Kenny, who funds philanthropic projects in the United States and across the globe through his Love Everybody Foundation. “We inspire each other. Next thing you know, we find ways to take action and do something about them.”

All 12 parts of “An Essential Conversation” are posted on the ETSU College of Public Health website. During the 12 days leading up to Christmas – beginning Saturday, Dec. 13 – the three men will use their social media avenues to highlight one specific topic from the series each day.

“Each of us speaks to a different audience,” Wykoff said. “We’re hopeful this will open more doors and bring more awareness to these important topics.”

Frist, founder and chairman of the nonprofit organization Hope Through Healing Hands, said the project is helping him focus on “the now.”

“My hope is that we will build a community committed to taking the small steps now that will have a lasting impact,” he said. “Together we can build a different world in a year.”

The trio plans to continue collaborating on efforts that shine a light on public health issues.

“I found a common bond with Bill and Randy. We are each just audacious enough to believe we can each make things a little better,” Big Kenny said. “(And) if there’s a hungry kid anywhere, that’s enough to know we got plenty to talk about and plenty to do.”

“An Essential Conversation: Things We Must Care About For a Better World” can be viewed in its entirety by visiting

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