Established superstars were out in full force at Music Builds: The CMT Disaster Relief Concert, but it was a newcomer who perhaps best described the country music community and its commitment to help those impacted by the recent tornadoes that ripped through the South.
"Somebody asked me this morning, 'Why did you choose country music?'" David Nail said Thursday night (May 12) while working the phone bank for the fundraiser at the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville. "That got me thinking. I knew I was coming out here to do this tonight, and I just kind of use tonight as an example. It's nights like tonight where you see guys like Lady Antebellum, Alan Jackson and Hank Williams Jr. walking around the tables as we were taking calls."
Nail was just one of many celebrities volunteering to work the phones to accept donations for the American Red Cross. Others included Ashton Shepherd, Big Kenny, Clay Walker, Clint Black, Crystal Bowersox, Danny Gokey, Darryl Worley, Hilary and Holly Williams, Kellie Pickler, Montgomery Gentry, Phil Vassar, model Niki Taylor and Olympic gold medalist figure skater Scott Hamilton.
Williams came up with the idea for the telethon after seeing media reports of tornado damage in Alabama. Once word spread about the fundraiser, Alabama, Alan Jackson, Gretchen Wilson, Keith Urban, Lady Antebellum, Little Big Town, Ronnie Dunn, Sara Evans, the Blind Boys of Alabama, Tim McGraw and Trace Adkins were quick to offer their time and talent to perform.
Williams said he experienced some inconvenience when the storms tore through the South last month, but he had a hard time comprehending the extent of the tornado damage in Alabama.
"When this happened, we were kind of driven out of our home up in northwest Tennessee," he told CMT Insider. "We had tornadoes and flooding and no power for several days. ... Then I start seeing the news on television and the Weather Channel and, then all of a sudden, how many deaths? I couldn't believe it. Tuscaloosa, Cullman, where I used to live, Birmingham. And then it would double. Then it was 120. Then I talked to Robin Meade at CNN. Then it was 170. I said, 'This can't be right. I didn't see that right, did I? In that short of time, can it be right?'"
He decided to visit some of the tornado-ravaged areas.
"I went down there and saw it in person and what it did to Tuscaloosa," he said. "There's no way to describe. My buddies told me, 'When you get here and see it, you'll wonder how it didn't kill thousands. I've never seen anything like it in my lifetime. We've never had anything in Nashville like this or in Tennessee like this. We're talking about the biggest natural disaster in the history of the state of Alabama -- 5,700 homes, just Tuscaloosa. Thirty people are still missing, and it all adds up. I said, 'I gotta do something.'"
Williams said he initially thought, "OK, well, we'll go out and play Titans Stadium with good ol' Alan and Tim, Lady A. Maybe we'll maybe make a couple hundred thousand. ... I realized that's nothing for what they need there. And I said, 'Telethon, telethon.'"
Teddy Gentry, bassist for the band Alabama, said it's essential for the tornado and flood victims to get the assistance they need to put their lives back in order.
"People need to financially be able to come back and try to get their homes back to where they can live in and get out from under the blue tarps," he said. "It's miles of devastation when you get done looking at it. It's not just one isolated place or a little tore-up place here or there. There's miles of it -- full of people that lost everything they had, lost their homes, lost loved ones. A lot of it will never be replaced, but all we can do is to help the folks through this tough time. And that's what we're here for -- to encourage people to reach down and give till it hurts because these people are hurting right now."
In terms of the destruction, Urban said he's "never seen anything like it" in the almost two decades he's lived in the U.S., but he can identify with victims' sense of loss.
"I can relate to losing the things you take for granted," he said. "In our case, it was our home. When I was 10, our family home burned down. And that feeling, I'll never forget that. Coming home, you suddenly realize the place that I just left this morning to go to school, it's not here. Where are we going to sleep? All these things, to see this happening, it hurts through Alabama and all those outlying areas, too."
Following the floods that hit Nashville and Middle Tennessee last year, Urban says there's a tendency for people to become somewhat desensitized to the needs of communities where disasters have occurred.
"There's been so many tragedies that people have been asking for help, it's very easy for people to get fatigued by giving," he said. "But I think tonight's important to remember that it's not really how much you give. It's that you are aware of it and do what you can. That's all. That's life, and there's always going to be people that need our help. It's not like a quota that we should have per year. 'Well, I've helped two charities. That's it for me.' Even if it's sending a tiny little thing, I think that's what it's all about."
Adkins credits Williams for making the Music Builds concert happen.
"Hank called and said, 'Hey, we need to do something for these folks,'" Adkins said. "And when he calls, people start steppin' and fetchin', and a couple of days later, we've got a show together. I'm excited to be here tonight, and it's for the noblest of causes."
Asked if he had any words of encouragement for the victims of the storms, Adkins said, "It's almost redundant at this point because these folks are the backbone of this country, and they are the most resilient, spiritually-strong people. They don't need encouragement from me. I look to those folks for encouragement. The same thing we did here a year ago in Nashville, these folks are all going to pull together, and they're going to fix what needs fixin' and do what needs doin', and it's probably going to come back better than ever."
The interviews were conducted by CMT Insider producer Tim Hardiman.