It was a laid back night, free of set lists and staged antics, a freewheeling show perfectly suited to the spirit of the historic
Joe Diffie stepped onstage Sunday (Feb. 11) for the ninth annual
Country Steps in for First Steps benefit, and he brought with him
a laundry list of fellow artists, including Neal McCoy, Keith
Urban, Trace Adkins, Mark Wills, Chalee Tennison, Lisa
Angelle, The Martins and comedian Mike Snider. The sound
was a bit too loud for the old Ryman, but the crowd was
enthusiastic until the bitter end.
Diffie’s set was pure audience participation, with the star declaring, “I don’t know what to play now.
What do y’all want to hear?” The crowd responded with shouts of “John Deere Green” and “Third Rock
From the Sun,” and Diffie obliged.
In its nine-year history, the benefit show, silent auction and celebrity golf tournament have raised about
$600,000 for Nashville’s First Steps, a program that aids mentally and physically disabled children.
Diffie’s son, Tyler, was born with Down syndrome and attended the school for several years. At the
time, Diffie was a struggling singer and couldn’t pay for the services. Although Tyler no longer attends,
Diffie says he has a “sense of responsibility” to repay his debt to the school with the annual benefit show.
“It was such a blessing to have Tyler there at the time because when you have a child with a disability
you have zero experience at it and you don’t know what to do,” Diffie said backstage before Sunday’s
concert. “They gave us a lot of good guidelines, and they worked with Tyler. His muscles were flaccid,
so they worked on his muscle tone, and they taught him a little bit of sign language for when he was
hungry. Just little things that really helped.”
Diffie’s celebrity friends have been eager to help raise money,
which in the past has paid for equipment, staff salaries and vans
for the school.
“I love him for what he’s doing and the personal thing that Joe
has invested in this whole thing,” Adkins said. “When he asked
me if I wanted to do it, I didn’t even think about it.”
Wills and Urban arrived at the First Steps show having spent the
morning at a Nashville mall helping a local radio station raise
money for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
“I’ve had a great day of creating awareness of the other side of life that we don’t always get to see
because we get caught up in our work and our little problems,” Urban told country.com. “You suddenly
realize there are these people who are trying to raise these kids who are struggling with some of the
realities that other people take for granted.”
Urban, who played his solo set acoustically, performed his recent hits but also included a song
appropriate to the evening. “The Deeper the Sorrow” focused on finding a blessing in adversity with lines
like “I guess the deeper the sorrow, the greater the joy.”
Newcomer Angelle sang a sweet version of her new single, “I
Will Love You.” The striking ballad was first recorded by pop
artist Fisher, whose version was recently featured in an episode
of TV show Ally McBeal.
Also bringing a spiritual tone to the night was Southern Gospel
trio The Martins, whose a cappella performance brought
raucous applause from the crowd. Keeping the energetic vibe
going, McCoy brought up the house lights and willed the crowd
to its collective feet. He ran through hits “Wink” and “The Shake”
but also debuted a more reserved song, “What Would Love Say,” from his new album, 24-7-365.
In addition to the music, fans were able to bid on five tables full of celebrity merchandise, including an
autographed Tennessee Titans football, a full-sized Faith Hill cutout and autographed guitars, tour
jackets and CDs. Diffie even donated three bottles of wine from his own Winding Road Winery in
Brentwood, Tenn. Instead of merlot, cabernet or chardonnay, the vintages were pumpkin and
persimmon. An estimate on money raised was forthcoming at press time.
“I thought anything we’d raise would be really neat,” Diffie said. “We’ve had so many great artists and
sponsors and people buying tickets, it’s amazing. I never thought that I could raise that much money in
that amount of time. As long as we can, we’ll keep doing it.”