In the wake of the attacks on Sept. 11, many country songs have taken on new meaning and added power. Sunday night (Oct. 21) at the Gaylord Entertainment Center in Nashville, Diamond Rio ‘s “One More Day” offered solace to a nation mourning the sudden and unexpected deaths of thousands of loved ones. Martina McBride ‘s “Independence Day” sounded a national vow to “make the guilty pay.” George Strait ‘s “The Fireman” offered a peppy tribute to firefighters — those living and those who lost their lives in New York.
In a charity benefit unprecedented in country music annals, many of the music’s biggest stars donated their services to raise money for The Salvation Army Disaster Relief Fund in the Country Freedom Concert. The event was telecast live on CMT, CMT Canada and VH1 Country. Over 700 radio stations simulcast the signal across the U.S. and in Scotland, Greece and England. Standing ovations came frequently as the crowd responded to entreaties and pronouncements from the stage.
The most radical re-purposing of a song came from Hank Williams Jr . “I got an old song that is now a new song I want to share with everyone tonight,” he said by way of introducing “A Country Boy Can Survive,” reworked as “America Can Survive.” “We’re all together now we’ve drawn the line/Our flag is up, the stock market’s down, but now we’re united from the country to the town,” he sang in his trademark, blues-inflected snarl. The song drew the most sustained applause of the evening.
Vince Gill wore a New York Police Department hat and a New York Fire Department shirt as he shared songs about healing. “You just never know, how tomorrow will go,” he sang, “so let’s make sure we kiss goodbye.”
Both in spoken segments and between songs in their sets, the country artists urged viewers and listeners to give to the cause. “It feels good to be able to help, doesn’t it?” Strait asked the crowd.
Early selections set a celebratory tone for the evening. McBride, the first performer, began with an a cappella performance of the chorus of “Independence Day.” She also performed “Blessed,” in which she recounts her good fortune as a mother and the recipient of fulfilling love.
“You can never estimate music’s power to heal,” McBride said backstage. “There has to be an outlet for people to get together and express all these things we’re feeling — grief, guilt, being scared, being uncertain. This is a way that we can all get together and let it out in a safe environment and make everybody go home feeling better.”
Lonestar , who act as spokesmen for the American Red Cross, began with the uptempo “With Me,” then followed with their chart-topping heart-tugger, “I’m Already There.” “On Sept. 11, this song took on a whole new meaning,” the group’s frontman Richie McDonald said as he introduced the song. “We’d like to dedicate it to the victims and their families and let them know that in our hearts, they’ll always be ‘already there.'”
Toby Keith , in a filmed segment, described his disorientation and emotion during a visit to the ground zero site. “It leaves a hole in your soul, and it makes me very sad but very angry at the same time,” he said. Travis Tritt , also on film, spoke with troops at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta, Ga., about their dedication to duty and their commitment to country.
Clint Black did two numbers from his 1997 release, Nothin’ but the Taillights. “The Shoes You’re Wearin'” struck a contemplative note, while the title track brought the mood up with its clap-along quality and its extended guitar coda.
He followed those songs with “America,” a song he wrote following the Sept. 11 tragedy. Its lyrics speak of the beauty of the flag, the pain of the recent tragedy and the country’s resilient strength. “We’ll teach ’em all right from wrong, America.” Many in the audience waved red, white and blue glow sticks, while the American flag was projected on large screens. The song ended with the refrain, “How I love America.”
Strait performed “The Fireman,” and although its lighthearted theme is about a guy who goes around town “putting out old flames,” it also has added meaning, as firefighters are extolled for their sacrifice in the face of tragedy.
Tim McGraw eschewed his own repertoire, instead performing Eric Clapton’s Grammy-winning “Tears in Heaven” and Petra’s gospel song, “More Power to Ya.”
While country’s benefit concert did not have the throngs of police, firefighters, ironworkers and other emergency personnel who attended the Saturday concert at New York’s Madison Square Garden, there were military guests from Fort Campell in Kentucky, emergency workers from Memphis and volunteers and staff from The Salvation Army.
Ronnie Dunn told the audience that he had visited a Nashville firehouse on Friday, where he gave the city’s firefighters 1,100 tickets for the concert. In turn, a third-generation firefighter gave Dunn an old fire helmet asking him to have it signed by the artists who participated in the concert.
Brooks & Dunn , with help from Keith Urban on guitar, performed their No. 1 country hit “Only in America” and followed it with the old Youngbloods tune, “Get Together.” Dunn took care to point out that he was singing about “loving Americans” rather than the “bad guys.”
The experience surprised Sara Evans . “I didn’t realize I would be so moved,” she said after her performance. “It all started coming back to me why we’re here. You go through all the hair and makeup and rehearsals, then once you get out there and the fans are out there and they’re crying and they’re holding up ‘God Bless America’ signs … I was really, really proud to be here, and I’ll never forget it as long as I live.”
“I Hope You Dance” from Lee Ann Womack was like balm on a wound, and her “The Preacher Won’t Have to Lie,” about making moral choices that follow one through life, also sounded an uplifting note.
Eddie Montgomery dedicated Montgomery Gentry ‘s “Tattoos & Scars” to veterans everywhere, and the duo also performed “Hillbilly Shoes.”
With trademark class, Trisha Yearwood capped the evening with a spare but wonderful reading of “America the Beautiful” and a grand gospel treatment — with help from a composite choir representing 25 churches — of Garth Brooks ‘ “We Shall Be Free.”
Scheduled performers George Jones and Earl Scruggs did not appear. Jones was fighting voice problems, so Urban filled in for him. Scruggs became ill during the show itself and had to leave before his appearance.
Organizers — CMT and Clear Channel Entertainment — will not have figures on money raised for the Disaster Relief Fund until early in the week.
Michael Gray and Chet Flippo contributed to this story.
Related Country Freedom Concert Links:
God and Man at Ground Zero: A Salvation Army Journal
Clint Black to Sing New Patriotic Song at Country Freedom Concert
Country Freedom Concert: Country’s Love Song to America