“For so many songs over the years, I would think to myself, ‘What’s like something like Alabama would do?’ Honestly, that’s how I would think as I wrote songs.”
It was early in the Songwriters’ Dinner at the St. Jude Country Cares Seminar, and Paisley was on stage swapping songs and sharing stories with a hero of his, Alabama lead singer Randy Owen.
But the hero worship was about more than hooks and hits. It was about a hospital – St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, where Owen led and so many others in the country music community have followed.
Country Cares, the fundraising event that Owen founded in 1989, has raised more than $750 million for St. Jude through annual radiothons at country stations across the U.S. It brought in $57 million in 2017.
“This is the kind of place that changes you,” said Paisley, who received the ‘Angels Among Us Award’ for his own support of St. Jude. “It refocuses what’s important the moment you walk in these doors. And it’s all because of him that all of us in this line of work have anything to do with the place.”
Alabama is considered the most successful band in country music history with some 75 million records sold and 33 No. 1 country hits. But on that night at The Peabody hotel in Memphis, Owen was more familiarly embraced as a silver-haired, guitar-strumming, favorite son of the St. Jude family – the patron singer of hopeless causes.
Not that Owen wanted praise. In fact, just as Paisley, who was still in high school when Owen founded Country Cares, was touting “the vision of this man,” Owen played the first notes of the night on his electric guitar. He kept playing even as Paisley deadpanned “I wasn’t done.” And soon Owen was singing the familiar opening words to “Tennessee River,” Alabama’s first No. 1 hit.
The songs kept coming for more than an hour and a half – the likes of “Mountain Music” and “Feels So Right” from Owen, “Mud on the Tires” and “He Didn’t Have to Be” from Paisley.
A highlight of the night was Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” and the story behind it. Seems his “like something like Alabama would do” formula was working all too well, to the point, Paisley joked, where he needed to get Owen on board as a co-writer or “pay a lot in legal fees.”
The result was a No. 1 hit, featuring Alabama, with a chorus that begins, “Now we’re listening to old Alabama / And we’re driving through Tennessee.”
The performances capped the 29th annual Country Cares Seminar, which brought country artists and representatives from some 200 country radio stations to St. Jude and Memphis.
Over three days of the seminar, artists met patients and mingled with DJs, DJs networked and learned more about raising funds and awareness for the hospital, and country music’s bond with St. Jude grew stronger.
And, inevitably, music broke out – from Owen singing gospel during a “get to know you” session with patients and families on Thursday, to Owen and Paisley singing for their supper at the Songwriters’ Dinner.
The night’s last song brought it all back home to the hospital, with Owen singing Alabama’s “Angels Among Us,” surrounded by St. Jude patients. It’s a song about hope and a helping hand, about shining a light on the darkest of days – a fitting finale.
Not that Owen, at 68, is thinking about finales. With Country Cares at $750 million-plus raised and counting, he told the crowd:
“Our goal is a billion. I hope I live to see that. That’s my goal.”
And then? Owen said he believes Paisley and country music’s younger generation will “take it to a whole new level. I really do, with all my heart.”