John Rich on Uniting Country's Past & Future: 'All of This Timeless Talent Is Right There'

 Joe Hardwick
Big and Rich

Growing up, John Rich was definitely a student of country music. That love and passion for the genre's heritage was clear when he hosted Tuesday's fourth annual John Rich & Friends concert at Memphis' Cannon Center for the Performing Arts.

"I've got a lot of friends in a lot of different places, and every year, I try to come up with a different twist," he told Billboard. "This year, I thought it would be cool to showcase as many decades of country music all on the same stage. We ended up with six decades being represented on the show. We had Leroy Van Dyke on the show. He came to Memphis and did 'The Auctioneer' and actually auctioned off the handwritten lyrics to the song along with a guitar."

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In addition to Van Dyke, the concert also featured many more iconic names. "We also had Lorrie Morgan, TG Sheppard, John Conlee and Lee Greenwood. Everybody did two songs each, then we brought out Frankie Ballard, who is approaching his third No. 1 single in a row, and then we finished it off with Big & Rich." He said the balance of past and present seemed to work well with the crowd. "It was over the top, in terms of the response we got from the audience. " Also on the bill were comedy duo Williams & Ree, who Rich has been a huge fan of from their days as guests on TNN's Nashville Now. "I remember taking my allowance money, going to Walmart and buying one of their cassettes," he says fondly.

A great memory of the day included a plane ride from Nashville to Memphis and back. "Somebody should have had a camera running the whole time, because that would have been a TV special -- just what happened on the plane to Memphis and back," Rich said. "Frankie was sitting right by TG, and they started talking about Elvis, who TG knew well, and even lived at Graceland for a time. It was so amazing to sit back, ask him questions and listen to what they say." The interaction between the newer acts and the legends was something that Rich would love to see more of.

"I wish more new country artists would reach back to some of these greats that are here in Nashville, engage them and make music with them. I wrote 'Shuttin' Detroit Down' with John Anderson. All of this timeless talent is sitting right there, I think the younger artists need to tap into what they have to offer."

The concert was a benefit for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, a cause Rich is quite passionate about. "I've been working with St. Jude's since the Lonestar days, but got really focused on it when I was on Celebrity Apprentice, and I played for St. Jude's. After I won the show, I told them, 'There's got to be something else I can do. We've built all this momentum. We can take this forward, and do something every year. I have all these friends from different places, comedians, actors, country singers, sports figures, and all of that. He said 'Let's just do it.' Every year, I am more and more shocked at the success of it, and that I get to be a part of something that big and important."

He says being involved with the hospital is rewarding on several levels. "With St. Jude's, there are two things that are standouts. No kid that goes there ever pays a nickel for any treatment. They take care of their parents, also. They take the worst cases of cancer, ones where other hospitals don't even know where to begin, they'll take them at their own expense. It costs a couple of million dollars a day to run it, and there is close to eight or nine thousand kids a year coming through the hospital."

He said the facility does a lot more than meets the eye. "Another element of it is that it's not just St. Jude's Children's Hospital, it's St. Jude's Children's Research Hospital. They have a panel of scientists and doctors that all they do -- day in and day out -- is come up with new and experimental tactics to attack cancer. I was going room to room, singing to the kids, and I walked into this one room. I asked the child what he had been diagnosed with, and he reaches over to the nightstand and picks up a piece of paper. It looked like it had a VIN number on it. He said, 'This is my cancer. They don't have a name for it yet.' He hands me these letters and numbers. If that doesn't put an exclamation point on what St. Jude's does, I don't know what does. That was 15 years ago, and they figured out how to treat the cancer, and he's still alive today. Once they come up with a way to fight any kind of cancer, they upload it to the Internet, so every other hospital has access to what they've learned."

The duo continues to be quite busy this week, with Wednesday's appearance on the CMT Awards, another date in Memphis on Thursday, and more CMA Music Festival appearances through the weekend -- including throwing a party at his house for contest winners. "Other than that," he jokes, "There's not much going on!"