Amid the afterglow of the Country Music Association Awards and the buzz of the Grammy nominations, three of country's leading ladies -- Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes and Carrie Underwood -- took time o

Amid the afterglow of the Country Music Association Awards and the buzz of the Grammy nominations, three of country's leading ladies -- Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes and Carrie Underwood -- took time out to support a greater concern.

With a top ticket price of $275, the one-off Country Cares concert featuring the three singers raised $500,000 for Habitat For Humanity's Operation Home Delivery initiative for the Hurricane Katrina-impacted Gulf region. It was a cause that kept the evening earthy and humble, no more so than when the check presentation in the middle of McBride's headline set was followed by the emotional onstage presentation of keys to a new Habitat For Humanity house to one dislocated family from New Orleans -- along with a plank of wood for the front porch that all three of the performers autographed.

And while it's not like any of them have to be pushed to sing well, the spirit of the show seemed to imbue a little more potency to the singers' sets. They each rose to the occasion by working at the top of their games and beyond the level of the typical radio-station sponsored holiday show.

There were certainly some high stakes for McBride and Underwood, both of whom have logged No. 1 country albums in recent weeks. McBride's 85-minute headline set was her first major concert performance since the release of her new covers album, "Timeless," and a bit of a dry run for a full-scale tour that starts in January.

She and her seven-piece band went a bit light on the "new" material, plucking four songs from the album -- including the first single, Lynn Anderson's "(I Never Promised You A) Rose Garden" -- and concentrating mostly on energetic hits such as "When God-Fearin' Women Get the Blues," "Happy Girl" and "Independence Day," as well as a faithful take on Pat Benatar's "Hit Me With Your Best Shot."

The moody "Concrete Angel" was a highlight, as was a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" that was accompanied by video images of Katrina-damaged New Orleans. And while we didn't necessarily need it, an a capella encore of "O Holy Night" ended the evening with a forceful reminder of McBride's formidable vocal skills.

The Country Cares show was also a first for "American Idol" champ Underwood, providing a chance to trot out her own band for a half-hour of songs from her debut album, "Some Hearts" -- including the title track and the single "Jesus, Take the Wheel" -- as well as the "Idol" favorite "Inside Your Heaven" and a show-stopping rendition of the seasonal favorite "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Underwood projected a confident if slightly timid stage presence, although her set would have been better closed with a rocker like "I Ain't in Checotah Anymore" than the more restrained "Wasted."

In contrast to the other two sets, Rimes -- who flew a red-eye in from Las Vegas -- joined her three-piece ensemble for a stripped-down 50-minute acoustic show driven by one excellent vocal performance after another. With family looking on (her husband hails from the Detroit area), Rimes ran through an assortment of her hits, including "Something's Gotta Give," "One Way Ticket (Because I Can)," Patsy Cline's "Blue" and "Can't Fight the Moonlight," the theme from the 2000 film "Coyote Ugly."

Rimes also honored the upcoming holidays with a torchy "All I Want for Christmas Is You" and closed by belting out a version of the Kris Kristofferson-penned Janis Joplin staple "Me and Bobby McGee."