Though the 2015 CMA Festival is a couple of days away from its official kickoff, Monday night’s sixth annual Darius & Friends benefit concert for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon kicked off the week for country music fans — with a diverse lineup that included Brett Eldredge, Scotty McCreery, A Thousand Horses, Brothers Osborne, Little Big Town and Steve Wariner.
Darius Rucker told Billboard that he enjoys putting the show together and featuring his contemporaries, but admits there’s a little something special about having artists like Wariner or Kenny Rogers, who has played the event before.
“It’s crazy, some of the wonderful names I’ve gotten to have over the last six years, and to have it help St. Jude’s is awesome,” he said. “I’m proud of this event and hope we get to keep having it for years to come. I’ve had so many of my heroes doing the show, like Steve, Kenny Rogers. I remember one year that New Grass Revival came by and did a few songs. Moments like that — where you get to sing with someone like Kenny, who I grew up with — are so amazing. It’s been a wonderful trip, and we’ve gotten to do some great things.” Last night, Rucker watched as Wariner performed two of his biggest hits — “The Weekend” and “If I Didn’t Love You” — before joining his fellow Grand Ole Opry member onstage for a riveting version of The Beatles‘ “Get Back.”
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Wariner was quick to return the praise, saying, “I’ve known about this event for a while, and it’s got a good reputation. It’s for St. Jude’s and everybody loves it. I do. I love anything with St. Jude’s or juvenile diabetes. Those are my two favorite charities. If anyone asks me about something to do with either, I’m there. I also like Darius a lot.”
As the unofficial launch event for the 2015 CMA Festival, Wariner reflected on how the event has changed over the years from the days at the Municipal Auditorium in the 1970s — which he played as a sideman with Dottie West and Bob Luman — to the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in the 1980s. “It’s come a long way over the years, from here to here. It’s so different from the old days. There was something charming about the old days at the old rickety fairgrounds. It’s a great week for the fans. You can look around and see all the license plates around the town, and that’s what it’s about: People coming here and enjoying the city and everything it has to offer.” The entertainer is putting the final touches on his first-ever live album, slated for release later in 2015.
One artist who definitely has strong memories of CMA Fest week is Scotty McCreery, also on the bill Monday night. It was the first major country event he played after winning American Idol in 2011. “Thinking back about it, I was in what’s called the ‘Idol bubble,’ he said. They keep you out in LA, and you really don’t get to venture anywhere. You’re just doing the TV thing, so the 2011 CMA Festival was my first big step into the country music world outside of Idol. I thought, ‘Is it like this all the time?’ It was crazy, but it was so much fun and pandemonium. That was a fun step into it all, and it opened the floodgates to everything else.”
In keeping with CMA Fest tradition, Billboard asked McCreery about the most unique place he has ever signed an autograph — and he didn’t miss a beat. “This really big man had a few too many, and he comes up, lifts up his shirt and says, ‘Sign my chest, buddy.’ As an artist, you envision other chests, but I gave it to him…and let him keep the Sharpie,” he said with a laugh.
McCreery has just finished the first round of songs for an upcoming album, and he can’t wait for people to hear it. “We’ve done five songs already that we’ve got mastered, so I’m excited about listening to them. I think I’ve got it narrowed down to about two choices for a single. We’ll talk with the label next week. I hope the new music will take me to the next level and hopefully show a little depth to who I am.”
The night — which ended with a group sing-a-long of Rucker’s “Wagon Wheel” — was another successful fund-raiser for the Memphis-based facility. Between the concert and Tuesday’s (June 9) golf tournament, $220,000 was raised for St. Jude. Rucker said he is glad to give them a helping hand for the work the hospital does for others. “St. Jude’s is wonderful. Ever since we visited them the first time, I wanted to come up with a way to help them out. I remember being there and talking to doctors about the kids and their parents. Being a dad myself, and seeing all the great stuff they’re doing and how open they are with all their resources to help people, it was just something I wanted to be a part of and something I wanted to help. Fortunately, we’ve been able to do that.”