Country Newcomers and Veterans Sizzle in Vegas

Jewell and Turner Highlight 10th Annual Sizzlin' Country Concert

LAS VEGAS — With a talent lineup ranging from a 13-year-old newcomer to a country music veteran who jokes that he hasn’t had a hit record in many years, Tuesday night’s (May 25) Sizzlin’ Country concert truly offered something for just about anyone.

Hosted by Tracy Lawrence at the House of Blues, this year’s fundraiser for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation included performances by Buddy Jewell, Josh Turner, Sherrié Austin, Rushlow, Craig Morgan and Chalee Tennison. And then there were Ashley Gearing, who was only 12 last year when she released her debut single, and Gary Morris, who told the crowd, “I’m not going to sing my latest chart record because most of you weren’t born when it was playing.”

If Morris has been MIA on the charts, he soundly demonstrated that his operatic voice is still very much intact. One reason Morris performed was to help present the CFF’s annual Heart of Country award to BMI president and CEO Frances Preston for her support of the charity. With Preston seated on a stool beside him, Morris performed his biggest hit — “Wind Beneath My Wings.”

Preston has supported the Sizzlin’ Country concerts since they began a decade ago as a prequel to the Academy of Country Music Awards. This year’s awards show takes place Wednesday (May 26) at the Mandalay Bay Resort & Casino in Las Vegas.

Lawrence, too, has been a major supporter of the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, having hosted the first show in 1994 in Los Angeles. At Tuesday’s show, Lawrence was joined by two acoustic guitarists and a fiddler to get the show moving with “It’s All How You Look at It,” a track from his latest album, Strong. The audience response was even greater for “Paint Me a Birmingham,” the recent single that literally revived his career.

Having just recently turned 13, Gearing will be working the stage like an absolute pro by the time she registers for high school. She still hasn’t released an album after attracting attention last year for the debut single, “Can You Hear Me When I Talk to You?” Perhaps those steering her career are in no hurry to push things to a higher level just yet — and that’s an admirable change from when labels started trying to repeat the success LeAnn Rimes enjoyed. Gearing certainly has plenty of time to find her own musical style. In the meantime, there was no denying her raw talent during the two-song performance.

Signed to an independent record label, Morgan beat the odds — and the major record companies — early last year when he scored a huge hit with “Almost Home.” It proved that truly great country songs can still become hits, after all. When Morgan performed the song Tuesday night, along with his new single, “Look at Us,” you got the impression that he’s one of those artists who’s capable of many more pleasant surprises.

Austin offered her hit, “Streets of Heaven,” and her new single, a cover of the Dusty Springfield pop hit, “Son of a Preacher Man.” Austin prefaced the latter song by mentioning that she thought it was a country song because she first heard Skeeter Davis’ version while living in her native Australia.

The harder country style of Lawrence and Morgan was contrasted by the upbeat pop tone of Rushlow, the band led by former Little Texas frontman Tim Rushlow. Especially on the current single, “Sweet Summer Rain,” it must be said that Rushlow — the singer-songwriter — knows how to craft musical hook after musical hook within a single song. It’s a gift, to be sure.

The Warren Brothers made a surprise appearance but did not perform. Instead, they helped introduce Tennison, who performed “Me and Mexico” and “I Am Love” from her recent album.

Turner and Jewell made their appearances at the end of the concert just after performing at another event — the ACM-sponsored New Artists Show at the Country Radio Seminar also taking place at Mandalay Bay. The New Artists Show also featured Jimmy Wayne, Dierks Bentley and Pat Green.

In making the introduction, Lawrence noted that he was amazed the first time he heard Turner perform live. Country fans probably felt the same way the first time they heard Turner’s debut single, “Long Black Train,” which he performed at the Sizzlin’ Country concert. The powerhouse vocalist also offered his new single, “I Know What It Ain’t.”

Jewell sang his two hits — “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)” and “Sweet Southern Comfort” — no doubt planning to make them just the first in a series of successes. Between being a great singer and coming across as a good guy, the Nashville Star winner shouldn’t have any problems.

Lawrence brought his band back onstage to close the show with “Time Marches On.”

For all of its shortcomings in recent years, the country music industry manages to excel when it comes to pitching in for good causes. The Sizzlin’ Country concerts have raised more than $3 million for cystic fibrosis research. Tuesday’s “live” auction generated bids totaling more than $100,000, not to mention money raised from ticket sales and a silent auction.

The big stars get the attention, but a special credit must be given to the Doo Wah Riders, the house band for every one of the Sizzlin’ Country concerts. During the course of 10 years, there’s no telling how many songs the band learned for a one-time performance behind a more famous name.

Set List:

“It’s All How You Look at It”
“Paint Me a Birmingham”

“The Power of One”
“Can You Hear Me When I Talk to You?”

“Almost Home”
“Look at Us”

“Streets of Heaven”
“Son of a Preacher Man”

“Wind Beneath My Wings”
“Amazing Grace”

“I Can’t Be Your Friend”
“Sweet Summer Rain”

“Me and Mexico”
“I Am Love”

“Long Black Train”
“I Know What It Ain’t”

“Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)”
“Sweet Southern Comfort”

“Time Marches On”

Calvin Gilbert has served as’s managing editor since 2002. His background includes stints at the Nashville Banner, Radio & Records and Westwood One.