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Story by Deborah Evans Price​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

Photos by Steve Lowry 

There’s nothing more fun than good friends coming together to make music for a good cause. Brad Paisley, Trace Adkins, Rachel Wammack, Edwin McCain, Ashley McBryde, Lauren Alaina and others joined Darius Rucker, June 4, 2018, at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for his ninth annual Darius & Friends show to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.

“It was really just something I thought we’d do for a couple years,” Rucker told Sounds Like Nashville before the concert. “But it just keeps getting bigger. People keep coming out to play.  It’s awesome when you can call your friends in Nashville–and it’s Monday of CMA [Music Fest] week so most of them are here–and they love to play. That’s the community here.”

Previously held at the Wildhorse Saloon, this is the second year Darius & Friends has been held at the Ryman, a move that has made the event open to more fans. Since the singer launched Darius & Friends, he has raised $1.2 million for St. Jude with proceeds from his concert, auction and golf tournament all going to the Memphis, Tennessee-based hospital that conducts research and treats children battling cancer.

“It’s such a great hospital. When you get to the bottom line that no one gets a bill, that’s just crazy,” he said of St. Jude’s policy of treating every patient at no charge. “They do such great work. I wanted to do something to help. It breaks your heart that kids have to be there, but you’re happy that there’s somebody there for them.”

He and many other country artists frequently visit St. Jude and interact with the young patients. Adkins is among those who has spent time at the hospital. “It’s tough,” the father of five said of visiting St. Jude. “You count your blessings that one of your children is not there, but thank God if they needed it, St. Jude is there.  It really is a humbling experience to go visit those kids in the hospital and spend time with their parents. It’s pretty heavy, but I’ve done it several times and always come away strengthened from their strength and their courage.”

The night before his event for St. Jude, Rucker was the surprise guest at the ’80s Dance Party to End Alz, and he’s frequently involved in helping other charities. Why is giving back so important to Rucker? “Because I can,” he says with a smile. “To know that my presence or getting my friends together can help somebody somewhere, that’s a pretty cool feeling. And it’s fun! You get to hang out with your friends. Hanging out with everybody backstage is really fun. It’s a good time.”

Adkins agrees. “It’s kind of like doing the Opry.  You get to visit with a bunch of other artists backstage and it’s a lot fun.  It’s about the only time we get to see each other is when we do shows like this together or awards shows. It’s great.”

Newcomer Rachel Wammack not only enjoyed the camaraderie of visiting with other artists, she also loved visiting with fans outside the Ryman as she made her way inside. “We were walking through the streets to go through the artist entry and there were people waiting there,” said the Muscle Shoals native, whose debut EP was recently released by Sony Music Nashville. “I signed about 50 autographs. It was my first time. It felt absolutely incredible and I was so humbled that they cared about me. It was so awesome.”

Wammack was thrilled to get the call inviting her to participate and honored to be part of the evening. “Darius is incredible for putting this on and getting friends together to raise money for St. Jude,” she said. “The fact that he cares so much really means a lot. He’s such a sweet man. Until I’d met him, I’d always heard, “He’s just the sweetest person. He’s THE sweetest person!’ And he’s really lived up to that reputation.”

The event marked Wammack’s first time performing on the Ryman stage. “I feel like the Ryman totally has a spirit about it,” she said. “And I think it’s very cool that the people in the audience care about what we’re doing tonight.”

When show time arrived, Rucker kicked off an evening of great music with his hit “Alright,” and thanked the sold-out crowd for supporting the cause for the past nine years before launching into “For the First Time,” from his 2017 album, When Was the Last Time.

Next up, Alaina took the stage, looking amazing in a black off-the-shoulder top, black-and-white striped skirt and red hat.  She delivered her chart-topping hits “Road Less Traveled” and “What Ifs,” powering through the latter minus duet partner and former classmate Kane Brown. “That girl can SING!” Rucker proclaimed as Alaina exited the stage.

Rucker introduced radio personality/comedian Bobby Bones, who sang “Chick-fil-A But It’s Sunday” before Rucker joined him for a rousing rendition of the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!).” Backstreet Boys’ very own A.J. McLean took the stage next and the audience sang along loudly to every word of the BSB mega-hit, “I Want It That Way.”

Rucker returned to the stage again to deliver the sultry “Hands on Me” from his current album and then served up his 2013 hit, “Radio,” before introducing Wammack. The pretty blonde impressed the audience with “No Love” and then shared with the crowd that before signing her record deal she had worked as a bartender. She admitted she wasn’t a good bartender, but was a good listener. She then sang “Damage,” a poignant ballad inspired by those experiences that she co-wrote with Tom Douglas and David Hodges.

Next up, Adkins took the stage to sing “Just Fishin’” and had the crowd on its feet with the rowdy hit “Ladies Love Country Boys.”  The great evening of music continued as the crowd sang along with Rucker on his hit “Comeback Song” and with Rucker’s friend Edwin McCain as he delivered his 1998 hit, “I’ll Be.” Rucker invited singer/songwriter Patrick Davis to the stage to join he and McCain for a fiery rendition of the Bill Withers’ classic, “Use Me.”

McBryde delivered a three-song set that included “American Scandal” and a thoughtful version of Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time.” Rucker returned to the stage to introduce Paisley, the man who he said was more than a friend. “He’s my brother,” he said as Paisley took the stage. The two delivered an acoustic duet of Paisley’s hit, “Letter to Me,” that had the crowd on its feet singing long.

Paisley then launched into another crowd favorite as he sang “Ticks.” Rucker joined Paisley for a rowdy cover of “Alcohol” and then Rucker sang “Purple Rain,” (which he had performed with Paisley the night before at the 80s Dance Party to End Alz). Paisley delivered a blistering guitar solo during the Prince classic. After that amazing performance, Paisley’s dad, Doug, was standing in the back of the Ryman and commented to SLN, “If only I’d gotten him more guitar lessons,” and then burst into laughter.  Needless to say, Doug is proud of his boy.

As the fans stomped their feet and cheered for an encore, Rucker obliged by wowing the crowd with an old Hootie and the Blowfish hit, “Only Wanna Be with You,” before bringing a young girl on stage from the audience to join Adkins, McCain, McBryde and other friends for a sing along of his chart-topping hit, “Wagon Wheel.”

When the 2018 Darius & Friends show drew to a close, fans filed out of the Ryman already planning to attend next year as it has become a Nashville tradition no one wants to miss.