Kellie Pickler, Taylor Swift, Emerson Drive, Tanya Tucker and several other country artists jammed until the wee hours of Wednesday morning (June 6) at Nashville's Wildhorse Saloon for Chely Wright's seventh annual Reading, Writing & Rhythm benefit concert. The event raised more than $185,000 for Wright's nonprofit foundation that provides musical instruments and music education to public schools throughout the nation.
Each year, supportive fans from all corners of the U.S. line the street outside the Wildhorse to be a part of the fundraiser and to celebrate what has become an unofficial kickoff to the CMA Music Festival. The four-day festival officially begins Thursday (June 7) in downtown Nashville.
The action-packed evening began with Nashville Star winner Chris Young belting "Beer and Gasoline" as fans sang along to every word. Moments later, the women were cheering as Trent Tomlinson, sporting well-worn jeans and a skin-tight tank top made his way to the stage with "Drunker Than Me."
However, the night went from laughter to tears as Pickler, a first-time CMA Music Festival artist, emotionally belted out "I Wonder," a song written about her estranged mother. Finishing the song, the former America Idol contestant put her face in her hands as she wept, an action that brought several fans to their feet in support.
Still, with tears streaming down her cheek, she quickly wiped her face and set the mood yet again. "Well, I've got my red high heels on tonight," she said, "so I'm ready to kick somebody to the curb."
Pickler's fans then burst into excitement as they sang along with her first hit, "Red High Heels." She then made her way through the audience with high-fives and handshakes. Later, those famous shoes from her music video sold for more than $2,500. Several audience members then tried coaxing her into selling her favorite shoes right off her feet. Jokingly she said, "Well, then somebody better give me some, 'cause this is all I have."
However, it was Danielle Peck who immediately got the women from thinking shoes to men as all ages mouthed the words to her sassy single, "Findin' a Good Man." Emerson Drive followed with a brief set that included their current smash, "Moments." Wright then made her way to the stage as she presented the group with a No. 1 plaque celebrating their first-time accomplishment, and fans responded with a standing ovation.
Next onstage was singer-songwriter artist Mindy Smith, delivering her version of Dolly Parton's 1973 hit, "Jolene." Smith wrapped her set strumming her guitar with a broken string to crowd favorite, "Come to Jesus."
Tanya Tucker, a surprise guest, then sashayed to the stage wearing a leather pantsuit and glittery belt. Fans quickly jumped from their seats as the entire crowd echoed with her 1992 hit, "Some Kind of Trouble." Tucker's daughters Presley and Layla also accompanied her to greet the crowd and sing a bit. Tucker, who never finished school due to her early performing career, spoke of the importance of an education.
"I always wish I could have finished," she said. "I've even thought about going back sometime." Jokingly, she chuckled, "Reading, writing and rhythm -- I didn't do enough of it."
Tucker ended her performance with her signature song, "Delta Dawn." With support from the audience, she sang the classic song she made famous at age 13.
Somewhat appropriately, perhaps, Tucker was followed onstage by singer-songwriter Taylor Swift, who's still just a teenager herself.
"I have come to this as a fan for two years," she said. "I remember when I used to sit all the way in the back and hope some day Chely would invite me here."
The 17-year-old Swift started with her recent Top 10 hit, "Tim McGraw," and followed with the tender "Teardrops on My Guitar."
"I want you all to have an impression of me as being a nice person," she said. "And I want you to know that I really do try to be a nice person. But if you break my heart or hurt my feelings or are really mean to me," she grinned, "I'm gonna write a song about you." On that note, she then played the humorous song, "Picture to Burn."
Next up was Keith Anderson and his hit, "Pickin' Wildflowers." The crowd, especially women, clapped and hollered as Anderson in his tight T-shirt and fitted jeans sold the bandana off his head for more than $500.
Afterwards, Clay Walker performed the title song to his new album, Fall, and also sang a selection of other material, including "I Can't Sleep," a Top 10 single he co-wrote with Wright. Later in the evening, Ty Herndon returned to the benefit concert for a fourth year and sang "Living in a Moment," his No. 1 hit from 1996.
At the end of the day and minutes shy of midnight, Wright made her way to the stage to give thanks and praise for all those who came to support her Reading, Writing & Rhythm Foundation. The crowd once again rose to their feet as she sang their favorite, "Single White Female," and listened intently as she debuted a brand new song, "The Train." She ended the night with "It Was."
Closing out the evening, Wright had a simple message for her supporters. "I want to thank you again," she said, "because you're making a difference in young people's lives, and we are able to do great things."
She then began signing autographs for her fans, a task that lasted until 4 a.m.