Country Stars Rock Ronnie Dunn’s Barn

More than 800 guests filled the cathedral-size tent on Ronnie Dunn’s estate near Nashville Thursday (Oct. 3) for dinner and a concert to raise money to fight breast cancer. Dubbed “Rock the Barn 2,” the event was hosted by Brenda Lee and featured performances by Sara Evans , Rascal Flatts , Rebecca Lynn Howard , Lonestar , Pam Tillis , Rodney Crowell and Brooks & Dunn .

A gigantic black Brooks & Dunn hot-air balloon swayed and tugged at its mooring on Dunn’s front lawn. At the back of the property were the massive white remodeled barn and a field that held hundreds of cars. The corridor was equipped with a beer dispenser and a cappuccino stand and lined with tall tables topped with miniature buckets of unshelled peanuts. Inside there were staffed bars. The barbecue-centered meals were served buffet style.

Sony Music’s Donna Hilley, who organized the fundraiser with ASCAP senior vice president Connie Bradley, thanked Dunn and his wife, Janine, for making available “their wonderful barn that most of us would like to live in.”

Bradley spoke of the devastation breast cancer causes and of friends who had died from it. Dunn also had a personal tie-in with the disease. His mother recently had a mastectomy.

Circulating through the crowd were some of Nashville’s top songwriters, including Dave Loggins, Jerry Chesnut, Don Cook, Buddy Mondlock, Wayland Holyfield, Jim McBride, Kim Williams, Curly Putman and Gary Burr.

In spite of the palatial surroundings, the evening had a decidedly homey air to it. Guests moved freely about the tent during the show, chatting and lining up for second helpings. Applause tended to be living-room polite rather than arena ecstatic. The stage was simple, the lighting minimal and the artists, for the most part, worked with only one or two musicians backing them.

Lee was a gracious host, warmly praising all the stars and dutifully telling the crowd exactly where each one’s current single stood on the charts. The diminutive singer, who was recently elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, apologized to any friends she might have failed to greet. “The ones I haven’t spoken to, it wasn’t because I didn’t want to,” she stressed. “It’s just that I’m out there under the armpits.”

Martina McBride, who appeared late in the program, premiered a song intended for her next album. She said she had neither recorded the song nor performed it publicly before. Holding a copy of the lyrics and backed by a pianist who had not rehearsed the number, McBride nonetheless delivered a flawless reading of “In My Daughter’s Eyes.” Written by James Slater, the song is a mother’s reflection of how much she means to her daughter — but how much more the daughter means to her.

McBride opened her two-song segment with “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She explained that she had intended to have her brother Marty accompany her on “Blessed,” her hit from last year but that he had been sawing wood and had gotten a fragment in his eye. He will be “fine,” she assured the crowd.

Introducing McBride, Lee observed, “I think females are at their most creative edge now. She makes me proud to do what I do. She’s one of the best we have out there.”

“Well, I’m pregnant again,” Evans announced as she stood at the microphone, accompanied by two acoustic guitarists. Noting that she was in her seventh month, Evans added, “My band hates me because I’m grumpy.”

After following two acts who made the painfully ritualistic query, “How are you all doing?” Howard said, “I see everybody’s having a good time. So I don’t have to ask.” Her powerful rendition of “Forgive,” her current single and a tune she co-wrote, had the audience cheering mid-song. “Now that’s what I call a set of pipes,” exclaimed the ever-appreciative Lee. “I think she’s going to be around for a while.”

When Lee presented Tillis, she told the crowd that she had known the Tillis family for a long time, that, indeed, her mother used to babysit Pam. Tillis responded, “We’ve got some old home movies of your sweet-16 birthday party and you doing the twist. Don’t worry. You won’t see them on eBay.” With a nod to her host, Tillis continued, “I run into Ronnie and Janine antiquing all the time. I just wanted to come over here to see where they put all the stuff.”

Tillis opened with “I Ain’t Never,” a cut from It’s All Relative, her new album of songs written by her father, Mel Tillis. The audience stayed with her through that one and “Mi Vida Loca” but seemed to lose interest during her tediously slow version of “Heart Over Mind.”

Dunn took to the stage to introduce Rodney Crowell, explaining that he relied heavily on Crowell’s songs to win over the crowds back when he was performing as a solo act in the honky-tonks of Oklahoma and Texas. “There’s no one I listened to more coming up or who had more influence on me than Rodney Crowell,” he asserted. Flanked by a guitarist and a bass player, Crowell sang two of his newer compositions, “Fate’s Right Hand” and “Still Learning How to Fly.”

At a break in the performances, Brooks came out to auction several items. “I’m Kix Brooks,” he announced, “for all of those who’ve never seen me without a hat.” Looking around, he smirked, “This is Ronnie Dunn’s house. My house is a lot bigger than this.”

Brooks was quite effective in pumping up the bids, even though he refrained from auctioneer patter. An autographed set of CDs by the artists who performed during the evening went for $700. He got the same for a bottle of Brooks & Dunn-endorsed champagne (with its box lid autographed by the lineup). “As far as I know,” he said persuasively, “this bottle hasn’t been drank out of yet.”

Racing suits that he and Dunn had once worn, plus a box of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes bearing their picture, fetched $3,000. Three heavily autographed Gibson guitars sold for $6,500, $4,500 and $4,000.

Brooks & Dunn and their band closed the show with four songs. Crowell joined them to sing his hit, “I Ain’t Living Long Like This.”

Set List

Srar Evans
“Saints & Angels”
“I Keep Looking”

Rascal Flatts
“These Days”
“I’m Moving On”

Rebecca Lynn Howard
“I Don’t Paint Myself Into Corners”

“Walkin’ in Memphis”
“I’m Already There”
“What About Now”

Pam Tillis
“I Ain’t Never”
“Mi Vida Loca”
“Heart Over Mind”

Rodney Crowell
“Fate’s Right Hand”
“Still Learning How to Fly”

Martina McBride
“Somewhere Over the Rainbow”
“In My Daughter’s Eyes”

Brooks & Dunn
“Only in America”
“My Maria”
“I Ain’t Living Long Like This” (with Crowell)
“Boot Scootin’ Boogie”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to