Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena hosted the biggest names in country music on Nov. 8 for the CMA Awards to celebrate the year’s best highlights in the genre. Just four days later, some of those superstars came together at the venue once again — but this time, for a bittersweet cause.
The likes of Lady Antebellum, Sam Hunt, Martina McBride, Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Little Big Town, Jason Aldean, Chris Stapleton, Reba McEntire and George Strait performed in the Country Rising benefit show Sunday night, raising more than $4 million for the victims of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, as well as those affected by the tragic shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas last month. Aldean’s set was the most poignant of the night, as the singer was on stage during the tragedy that left 58 dead. Performing a rocking run of hits including “Dirt Road Anthem” and “She’s Country,” Aldean’s sentiment matched the fearlessness he showed in his dynamic performance.
"I know I don’t have to tell you guys this, but it’s been a rough couple months for us up here,” he told the crowd. "Let me just say this, I spent a lot of time, a long time, trying to make it in this business and doing something that I really enjoy. And I’ve loved getting up every day and playing music, playing shows for you guys and I’ll be damned if anybody’s ever going to stop me from doing that.”
Aldean was joined by his fellow country stars in expressing gratitude for the fans in attendance and all who have supported both Vegas and hurricane victims, but Lady A’s Charles Kelley wrapped up the night’s purpose best: “There’s a whole lot of healing that’s gonna happen tonight, but there’s also a whole lot of fun.”
In light of the sad losses in 2017, Lady A -- who opened the show, as previously scheduled show opener Carrie Underwood had to cancel after breaking her wrist over the weekend -- performed a cover of the late Tom Petty’s “Learning to Fly” before closing their four-song set with a heartfelt acoustic version of “Need You Now.” Sam Hunt took the stage second, starting out a medley of his hits with a touching (and relevant) rendition of “This Land Is Your Land,” which he recently recorded for the Will Smith Netflix series Bright.
Martina McBride’s set was short but affecting, with the country veteran choosing the meaningful “Love’s the Only House” and “Anyway” for her appearance. Keith Urban used his portion of the show to both move the audience and bring the energy to an almost untouchable level, starting off his set with a stirring rendition of his heart-rendering ballad “Blue Ain’t Your Color” before engaging the sold-out audience in a lighthearted sing-along and closing with “Wasted Time.”
Dierks Bentley, whose participation in Country Rising marked his first show since the Vegas shooting occurred, brought out summer tour mate Jon Pardi to sing this year’s CMA new artist of the year’s hit “Dirt On My Boots.” But before the fun collaboration, Bentley used his song “Riser” as an anthem for the first responders and those who have helped in these times of crisis. “When I think about Country Rising and what country music is, this is the best of what country music is,” he said. “The line between singers and fans is so thin in country music... This is what country music is all about, this community, this family and I’m so honored to be part of it.”
After the night’s host Bobby Bones shared a story about his experience from the Las Vegas shooting, he stressed that the tragedy shouldn’t stop fans from sharing in the love of music: “I had to encourage people that it couldn’t stop us from going to concerts, it couldn’t stop us from enjoying live music like tonight’s.” It was a perfect transition to Aldean’s much-anticipated set, as the “My Kinda Party” singer shared a fearless message and performed his heart out.
Little Big Town’s set saw the newly crowned CMA song of the year “Better Man” performed for the first time since the group’s big win, later ensuing a serious sing-along for their previous smash hit “Girl Crush.” The four-part harmonies were followed by a soulful solo performance from Chris Stapleton, who pledged $250,000 to the night’s beneficiaries before filling the arena with serious vocals on “Tennessee Whiskey."
Reba McEntire then kicked off the final string of iconic performers, bringing both fun and faith with “Out Like That” and “Back to God,” before finishing with the relevantly titled Reba theme song, “I’m a Survivor.” Ahead of the night’s finale with George Strait, Bones surprised the crowd with a video appearance from Garth Brooks, who greeted Nashville from Spokane, Washington, with a performance of “Callin’ Baton Rouge” -- and then introduced the night’s legendary closer.
Strait acknowledged the bittersweet cause of the night, thanking those in attendance for supporting those who were hurting, and offered up his hits “The Fireman,” “Amarillo by Morning” and “Troubadour." It was an impressive performance for someone who is retired from the business, but has stepped back onstage as of late to support victims of the country's recent tragedies. Most importantly, however, Strait's performance filled the room with an overwhelming sense of love for that which brought these fans of all ages together in the first place: good old country music.