LOS ANGELES -- They called it a jam, which has connotations of impromptu invention and unbridled spontaneity. In fact, Wednesday's (June 14) production had a very structured format and set list when Kenny Chesney, Martina McBride and Sara Evans took part in taping the upcoming CBS special, JCPenney Jam ... The Concert for America's Kids.
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However, the tight organization was somehow fitting. After all, the special is all about the importance of structure.
With 70 percent of American households requiring both parents to work, a reported 14.3 million children in the U.S. go unsupervised every day from 3-6 p.m. Dr. Phil McGraw, who was a self-described "latch-key kid," hosted the special with his wife, Robin, specifically to draw attention to the need for increased funding and availability of after-school programs. Country music -- with its heartland themes of home and family -- was naturally a big part of the evening's musical performances.
McBride and Evans were both particularly appropriate, since each of them grew up on farms in the Midwest, experienced plenty of after-school structure during their teens and now have three children each that they take with them during concert tours. Both of them have also been named by the country music industry as the top female vocalist.
"We have a lot of similarities," Evans conceded a day before the taping at Los Angeles' Shrine Auditorium. "We really do."
McBride spent her youth as a member of 4-H, a long-established extracurricular program for American students.
"It was such a great opportunity," she reflects. "All the things I learned in 4-H -- leadership and self-esteem and confidence and speaking in front of a group -- [are] all the kinds of things that 4-H teaches. It was just really important to me growing up, so to have other youngsters have the opportunity to have programs like that, I understand how important that is."
Creating a routine for kids with after-schools hours doesn't necessarily make parents popular.
"Every day as soon as school was out, I had to go straight home to work, and I was always so angry about that," Evans told a group of reporters.
But the short-term frustrations had long-term benefits, keeping her out of trouble and building some of the skills that helped her move forward with her life.
"I do remember what that was like, the kids in town who just got to kind of do whatever they wanted after school until their moms came home from work," Evans says. "They did tend to get into more trouble."
Despite the structure at Wednesday's taping, there was definitely some trouble to iron out. Tuxedoed musical director David Foster (known for his work with Natalie Cole and Toni Braxton, he also produced Anne Murray's "Now And Forever (You And Me)" and Kenny Rogers' "Crazy") stretched for time during one malfunction with a mini-"American Idol" vamp, enlisting a 20-year-old audience member named Ann Marie to do a spontaneous -- and excellent -- Whitney Houston-style take on Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You."
Other technical issues forced a long delay before Mississippi rockers 3 Doors Down turned in a second rendition of their 2000 hit, "Kryptonite." The extremely tan Evans then paired with the lead singer Brad Arnold to provide a layer of harmonies -- not present on the original recording -- for the group's power ballad, "Here Without You." Evans also turned in an energetic version of her hit from last fall, "A Real Fine Place to Start."
The black-hatted Chesney had an almost wind-up quality about him. He closed the show with performances of "Living in Fast Forward" and "Summertime" and was typically focused and intense, even though the on-and-off nature of TV tapings allows no time for warming up to the audience.
McBride, proclaiming she was "here as a mother first," kicked off the evening by applying her clean and powerful vocals to "This One's for the Girls" and "Rose Garden," backed by the string section of a full 60-piece orchestra.
Not every song from the evening will make the final cut for the television special when it airs Aug. 22. The concert also featured R&B singer John Legend, smooth-jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, classical pop figure Andrea Bocelli, American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee and Latin superstar Alejandro Sanz, among others.
Dr. Phil hopes the entertainment package will provide a setting in which TV viewers can begin to understand the depth of the problem unsupervised teens face within American society.
"We're in an upwardly mobile society at this point," he notes. "You've got kids that keep wanting more -- computers and games and this and that -- so both parents are working, they're trying to move to nice areas and there's a real tradeoff. You have a nicer house, a nicer car, more things for your children, but you miss some of that companionship. And so many are single-parent families, and they just have absolutely no alternative. So we don't want to be critical of these folks at all. What we want to do is give them some resources."
McBride understands the significance of those resources. Her daughter, Delaney, 11, is at an age when children begin to seek their own independence. McBride recognizes the need for reliable structure at a time when kids begin to make choices that potentially affect them for rest of their lives.
"It's important to get them involved in after-school projects," she says. "My oldest daughter is getting ready to start sports next year. She's going to be going into sixth grade, so she'll have a lot of after-school stuff to do. Even though the hours after school are from 3-6, they can be with me at the house. It's also important for them to have experiences outside the house with other children and other adults that care about them."