George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Other Stars Light Up T.J. Martell’s Nashville Fundraiser

Charity Honors Scott Hamilton, Rod Essig, Louis Messina, Dr. Joseph Smith, Janet Miller

Stars were practically coming out of the light fixtures Monday night (Feb. 27) at the ninth annual T.J. Martell Foundation’s Nashville Honors gala held at the plush Omni Hotel.

Before the evening ended, the crowd of some 500 well-heeled and well-connected donors were serenaded by and/or mingling with George Strait, Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Kelsea Ballerini, Eric Church, Chris Young, Montgomery Gentry, Charlie Daniels, Frankie Ballard, Craig Campbell, Styx’s Tommy Shaw and singer-actress Clare Bowen.

“As you might have heard, my character has had a tough week,” said actor Charles Esten as he welcomed the crowd. He was referring, of course, to the widely-reported tragedy that beset the family of Deacon Claybourne, the character he portrays on CMT’s Nashville.

It was Esten’s fifth year of hosting the banquet and auction that raises funds for cancer research.

This year’s honorees were cancer research pioneer Dr. Joseph Smith, Olympic skating gold medalist Scott Hamilton; former Nashville Chamber of Commerce economic development officer Janet Miller, talent agent Rod Essig and concert and tour promoter Louis Messina.

Ballard opened the musical proceedings, accompanying himself on guitar and singing his 2013 hit, “Helluva Life.”

He was followed by Warner Music Nashville chief John Esposito, who paid tribute to the late music executive Tony Martell. Martell started the charity in 1975 after his son, T.J., died of leukemia. The fund has subsequently raised nearly $300 million for research, Esposito reported.

The elder Martell died last November at the age of 90.

Urging the audience to do even more for the cause, Esposito said, “I want 2017 to be the year of Tony,” and with that he raised a glass of champagne and invited everyone to join him in a toast to Martell with the flutes of champagne already conveniently placed at each table setting.

It was an elegant dinner that featured rosemary-seared beef tenderloin steak and soft, butter-poached shrimp. Uniformed waiters stood at the ready to pour more wine as each glass was emptied. Bars remained open outside the dining area to service more resolute drinkers.

Esten returned to his hosting duties to introduce Bowen, who plays his niece Scarlett on Nashville. Diagnosed with cancer when she was 4 years old, the Australian actress sang “Love Steps In” to honor her brother, who was found to have cancer at 25.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for T.J. Martell Foundation

Almost everyone who spoke during the evening had a cancer story to tell about themselves or someone close to them. Most of the stories were ones of triumphing over the disease.

Charlie Daniels, a cancer survivor himself, presented Dr. Smith the medical research advancement award and told how the physician had comforted, reassured and treated him after his diagnosis. He also noted that Smith, who is at the forefront of high-tech cancer treatment, also goes regularly to Third World countries to apply his medical expertise to impoverished patients who would otherwise have no hope of cure.

The reliably humorous Brad Paisley came out to roast and toast Hamilton, his longtime friend. After singing his latest single, “Today,” Paisley picked up on Esten’s reference to Hamilton as “an American treasure.”

“He’s not big enough to be a treasure,” the less-than-towering Paisley mused. “He’s more of an American trinket.”

Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for T.J. Martell Foundation

Paisley praised Hamilton for his look-on-the-bright-side attitude, even after three separate bouts with cancer. He said that after Hamilton was operated on for testicular cancer, he brandished a license plate that read “RT1LFT.”

Hamilton took the ribbing in good humor. Accepting the lifetime humanitarian award, he paused to explain that after Paisley’s Grand Ole Opry friend Little Jimmy Dickens died, he’s become the butt of all the singer’s “short jokes.”

Esten related a cancer story that hit close to home. He said that after his 2-and-half-year old daughter was found to have leukemia, he was told that there was a good chance she would survive it. And, she has, he reported. “She’s now a junior at Brentwood High School and looking toward going to college.”

Next up was Ballerini, who sang her No. 1 single from last year, “Peter Pan”

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for T.J. Martell Foundation

Nashville Mayor Megan Berry presented Miller the Spirit of Nashville award for her work in bringing industries to the city and for the example of achievement she set for other women.

In tribute to Essig, his friend and talent agent, Shaw sang an acoustic version of Styx’s 1978 single, “Blue Collar Man (Long Nights),” which he said he wrote for his father.

John Huie, Essig’s partner at Creative Artists Agency and board chairman of the T.J. Martell Foundation, presented Essig the Frances Preston outstanding music industry achievement trophy. The late Preston was president was CEO of BMI, the performance rights organization, and inspiration for the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at the Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center in Nashville.

Strait kicked off the final award round of the evening.

“From one old troubadour to another,” he said from the stage, gesturing toward the table at which Messina sat. With that, he sang “Troubadour,” his wistful hit from 2008.

Chesney, another of Messina’s superstars, came out to join Strait, who seemed in an unusually expansive mood.

“What have you gotten me into?” Chesney demanded of Messina. “You know I can’t do this.” But on he went.

Rick Diamond/Getty Images for T.J. Martell Foundation
He said that in honor of the occasion he had given a writer $20 to write him a speech, which he then began to read, painstakingly reciting the opening gibberish of the song “Louie Louie.”

Then, adopting a Donald Trump tone of delivery, he said that Messina was “a huge idea guy … huge … believe me.”

“I’m just a rock ’n’ roll promoter,” Messina said, as he stood holding the Tony Martell lifetime entertainer achievement award. “All I do is bring a little music to America. And, actually, now global.”

In addition to Strait and Chesney, his vehicles for bringing “a little music” now include Taylor Swift, Eric Church and Ed Sheeran.

Messina said he’s wanted to promote concerts ever since he was 7 years old and saw Elvis Presley perform.

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