RAYVILLE, La. — Some 22,000 fans endured unseasonably cold temperatures at the Dixie Baseball Complex in Rayville, La., on Sunday (Oct. 28), drawn there by hometown hero Tim McGraw and his eighth annual Swampstock fundraiser. McGraw and company didn’t disappoint. While providing a day of great entertainment, the record-breaking event also raised money for the Rayville baseball program, a local scholarship fund and the New York Police and Fire Widows and Children’s Benefit Fund.
Under a cloudless blue sky, the massive crowd gathered in the heart of cotton country, where McGraw and wife Faith Hill got things rolling with their annual softball showdown. Hill’s red team featured Martina McBride and her husband John; McGraw’s dad, Tug McGraw; The Warren Brothers — Brett and Brad; Carolyn Dawn Johnson; former New York Met Ron Swoboda and members of McGraw’s family. McGraw’s blue team consisted of his band and several of his longtime friends.
Even though the area was decorated with every type of celebrity and star, Norman Rockwell himself could not have painted a more authentic slice of Americana than was in evidence on the Swampstock field. McGraw’s young daughters romped in the dugout with the McBrides’ children while their parents played on the field. Young students from the local elementary schools served as batboys for the day. The high school choir from Rayville sang the national anthem while area girl scouts held 10 American flags waving in the afternoon breeze.
As introductions were made, attention was paid to teachers and coaches who had worked with McGraw when he lived in Rayville, and he acknowledged each and every one. He even walked his daughter Maggie, 3, onto the field to throw out the first pitch of the day while sister Gracie, 4, stubbornly refused to join them. McGraw returned to Rayville as an award-winning country superstar, but his humanity was front and center as he galvanized those around him throughout the day.
McGraw’s team took the field as James Brown’s “Living in America” exploded from the loudspeakers, and the softball game was underway. The antics between the two teams were nonstop, and the game itself remained neck-and-neck until the very end. The most exciting moment came early in play when a police escort made its way onto the field to the sounds of Hank Williams Jr.’s Monday Night Football theme. The crowd erupted when Green Bay Packer quarterback Brett Favre emerged from the car. Though injured and unable to play in the game, he remained on the sidelines to offer support and entertain those watching.
Favre wasn’t the only one to have his own theme song for the day. Each time McGraw came to the plate, the chorus from an Elvis classic announced to the world that he was a “hunka hunka burning love.” The crowd enthusiastically agreed. Ultimately, Hill’s team overpowered McGraw’s squad in a 20-10 victory, their sixth consecutive triumph. Asked how it felt to beat her husband in softball, Hill, who is expecting the couple’s third child in January, grinned and exclaimed, “It’s a great feeling! At first I thought they might be playing us soft, but then I realized they were bringing out the big guns toward the middle of it all. I’m thinking maybe they panicked, and we loved it!”
After young Catherine Rainey from Waskam, Texas, made her second Swampstock appearance, the Warren Brothers kicked off the annual concert. The duo proved that they hadn’t left their energy on the softball field, serving up a rockin’ set that got the crowd jammin’ from the beginning. They invited Johnson to join them on stage for a show-stopping version of Dobie Gray’s “Drift Away.” She then took the stage alone with her guitar to offer a set of original material. The acoustic set featured her latest Top 5 single, “Complicated,” as well as other self-penned songs such as Jo Dee Messina’s “Down Time.”
McBride followed with a hit parade that showcased her powerful vocal ability. Interwoven with her biggest recordings were personal favorites such as the lush arrangement of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and the pop classic “I Can See Clearly Now.” Without a doubt, the crowd was waiting for a particular song, and McBride didn’t disappoint. With lighters flickering in the night air, flags waving and fists pumping, the crowd joined her in proclaiming “let freedom ring,” because it was indeed “Independence Day.”
All of this was a warm up for the main event. Folks from Mississippi, Texas, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Tennessee, Illinois, Louisiana made up the largest crowd ever for this hometown festival. Ranging in age from 8 to 80, they huddled in blankets and sipped hot chocolate as the temperature dropped to 44 degrees. When McGraw stepped out on the stage singing Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer,” the darkness came alive as the crowd rose to its feet. McGraw reeled off hit after hit as the crowd showered him with an explosion of flashbulbs while singing every song note for note.
Even blowing out a sound generator during “Indian Outlaw” couldn’t hold McGraw or the crowd down for long. Within minutes the problem was corrected, and things picked right up where they left off. Hill joined McGraw on stage for “It’s Your Love,” then sang “There Will Come a Day” solo before McGraw returned to the stage with “Things Change.” As the night drew to an end, you could hear the crowd singing his songs as an expression of how they felt — “I Like It, I Love It” and “a heart don’t forget something like that.”
Merle Haggard, sidelined by illness, had to cancel his appearance, but other artists offered high praise for the experience. “It’s great!” said Brett Warren of the event. “I’ve never had so much fun!” Johnson indicated that she “had heard about Swampstock for years” and was “just really thankful that they asked me to be there.” She added that she “couldn’t wait for the concert to see it all really happen, because so far it has been just wonderful.” McBride, asked how Swampstock ranked among all the cool things she had been able to do in her career, replied quickly, “This is THE coolest of all. I’m just so glad to be here because it’s lots and lots of fun. We just don’t get to do this kinda stuff enough!” Hill summed it up for her and her family. “It’s just absolutely a great day. Everything is going so well, the field and complex is beautiful, the crowd is amazing, and we’re just thrilled. We’re just so lucky!”