Darius Rucker, Maddie & Tae, Cole Swindell & More Gather for Country Cares Fundraiser at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital

Cole Swindell at the Ryman Auditorium on Aug. 30, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn.
Erika Goldring/Getty Images for ACM

Cole Swindell at the Ryman Auditorium on Aug. 30, 2016 in Nashville, Tenn. 

In 1989, Alabama was at the height of their popularity, in between such hit singles as “Song of the South” and “Southern Star.” That same year, lead singer Randy Owen had a meeting with legendary actor Danny Thomas concerning the country music industry getting involved in an awareness campaign for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. 

Nearly three decades later, Country Cares For St. Jude Kids has become one of the most successful radio fundraising events in America, with more than $700 million having been raised by stations across the United States over the years.
This month, hundreds of radio station representatives gathered in Memphis for the annual week of events that has been designated to rally support from the genre and its listeners. Attendees participated in panels which helped them to gain a deeper understanding of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the work that it does. In addition, many of country music’s top artists were in attendance over the Jan. 13-15 weekend to lend their support -- and to be lifted up as a result of being around the patients.

“You see real fast how fortunate you are,” Cole Swindell says. “I’ve had the chance to meet families with children that are sick, and it’s heartbreaking. But, being at a place like this, and seeing how positive it is – you have to be here to have the experience. You can’t really tell someone about it. They are going through things that I can’t even imagine. I think it takes people that have been through it to understand, but it affects people who haven’t. I know how fortunate I and my family am to be healthy. The fact that I can spend some time and try to put a smile on a kid’s face and just to see how dedicated everyone is here to curing childhood cancer, that’s so inspiring. I’ve never heard anybody talk about anything like they do St. Jude. Now, I know why.”

The singer added that while he made the trip to Memphis to try to put a smile on the patients’ face, it was he who came out better for the experience. “I think the people that are going through that are the ones that lift everyone else up. We should be the ones lifting them up. It’s just a sad thing that anyone has to experience that. You hear stories about the kids – a little girl who lost her battle, but wanted to donate her piggy bank to St. Jude because she knew that one penny could be the one that found a cure. They’re just wise beyond their years. How do you even think of that as a child?”
Rick Shadyac, Jr. can identify with those feelings. His father was instrumental in helping Thomas with the establishment of the hospital, and he currently serves as president and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude. He says that he cherishes the opportunity to be a part of the patients’ stories of winning the battle against childhood cancer. “I love these kids. I say that from the bottom of my heart. I’m blessed to have two great kids, and they’re healthy, thank God. But I get to know these families, and I see the journey that they are going on. It’s a tough journey.

"These kids inspire me every single day with the strength that they have, as well as the courage that they demonstrate every single day to battle cancer. You can just see that they love life. There’s so many lessons there that we can all learn from these kids. I try to watch them, and try to love on them a little bit, but at the same time, I try to soak it all in. I hope and pray that it has made me a better human being and a better father. These kids are truly amazing.” Still, he admits, there is work to do. Though the survival rate has improved drastically in the 55 years since St. Jude opened its doors, Shadyac says he won’t rest until they have defeated the disease.

“One in five kids still aren’t going to make it,” he says, sadly. “Twenty percent of the kids that are diagnosed with cancer still aren’t going to make it. This mom said to me the other day, ‘If you’re the mother of that one, the one matters.’ That one matters to me, and to all of us. We’re not going to stop until that one is eliminated – until we can stand in front of everybody and say it’s five out of five. But, we also know that the kids are going to suffer side effects from these treatments. We have to constantly improve those treatments so the kids can have the best quality of life that they possibly can. That’s what we do here, and we do it together with the country music industry, and the amazing doctors, scientists, and the families that come to us at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.”
The hospital is in the process of developing similar fundraising efforts with other musical formats, but the bond shared with Country is something special, and Shadyac says Randy Owen deserves the credit. “I would be completely remiss if I didn’t say thank you to my great friend Randy for twenty-eight years of support from him and Alabama. The country music industry has always embraced us in a very unique way. There’s a lot of great charities out there, but the industry has decided that they want to make a gigantic investment in this mission. I think they know that they are having a tremendous impact in helping kids that have been devastated by this horrible disease in cancer.

"Every time they come here, I think they grow closer to us. I love country music, and when I listen to some of the lyrics, there’s a lot of love and passion in them that actually tell stories. Every time I think about them, I think about where that song possibly came from. I think that’s why we are such great partners. This mission is about love.”

That mission is only continuing to grow, he says. “I read recently where Randy Owen spoke of a day when that number crosses over one billion dollars. I know that’s going to happen – and relatively soon. That’s the kind of momentum that we have. Nobody does that. This industry is unique in the way that it embraces St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The impact that the country music industry has had on St. Jude is not even capable of being measured. It has benefited tens of thousands of kids across the United States and the world.”

Panels during Country Cares week included patients and their parents, as well as NBA coach George Karl, who delivered the keynote address. In his remarks, he spoke of his own two battles with the disease over the years.
The event itself definitely qualifies as upbeat and positive. Maddie Logan of Maddie & Tae says it allows for the duo to enjoy the company of some of their youngest fans. “We just got done playing Uno with a kid, and had way too much fun. It’s incredible to come to a hospital and see so much joy and hope. The second I walked in here, I was overwhelmed at how joyful this building is. You wouldn’t expect that from a hospital. That’s because every person who works so hard to make sure it feels homey for these kids.”
She says that cancer has had a definite effect on her and Tae Dye both in the recent months. “We have both taken some hits in the past year. Tae’s boyfriend, Jackie Lee, lost his mom to cancer last year. My best friend’s mom passed away from it last year, and I lost my grandpa to it. So, we both have our own losses to it. I think that today is a special day for us because seeing those losses makes us know there are still people fighting to cure this disease. It’s been a peaceful experience knowing that.”

St. Jude takes pride in the success rate that they have enjoyed in treating childhood cancer. When Thomas opened the doors in 1962, the survival rate for children with cancer was 20 percent. Now, it’s over 80. One of the biggest success stories of the hospital is the treatment of ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia), which has increased from 4 to 94 percent. St. Jude has treated children from all fifty states, as well as from all around the world. On average, the hospital serves a staggering 7,800 active patients each year.
Of course, those are simply numbers and statistics. To get a deeper appreciation of the work that St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital does, one need only to speak with a family member of those that have received treatment from the facility. Joanna Gibson of Hardin, Kentucky can attest to this. Her son, Andy, wouldn’t be here without St. Jude, and she will be forever grateful to the staff who helped her family through a dark hour.

“St. Jude taught me never say never,” Gibson told Billboard. “Never say ‘Not your child.’ Your heart stops beating and then pumps out terror and despair - until you hear the words ‘We will cure him. It will be ok. We believe, and you believe, too. You aren't alone.’ My son, my family, our world was changed by St. Jude. The pure love from staff, the care and compassion and always the positive outlook - hope never ending. It's hard, and scary, and rough and the monsters are always lurking - but St. Jude is a refuge of hope and victory. Miracles. Every single day I saw miracles. My son is one of them.”
Darius Rucker, who received the Randy Owen Angels Among Us Award for his efforts to raise awareness of St. Jude, says that the hospital performs a great work to mankind – one that he is glad to shine the light on.
“It’s an amazing place that does amazing things. The fact that no parent has to worry about getting themselves there, where they are going to stay, or what they are going to eat, I can’t imagine being a parent where you’re worried about your kid every day, and in the back of your mind, you think 'how am I going to pay for this?’ I can’t imagine that, but at St. Jude, you don’t have to worry about that.”


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