Country Cares Today: Artists, Former St. Jude Kids Share Stories, Champion the Cause
Randy Owen can remember a few times when his yearly Country Cares for St. Jude Kids kickoff weekends in Memphis, Tenn., got off to a shaky start, and even one occasion when it seemed as though there might be hardly any country stars to perform during the seminar at all. One year, a snowstorm kept most of the artists scheduled to attend stuck in Nashville, while Owen and Music Row songwriting mainstay Jim McBride scrambled to lead the musical events alone.
"So, Jim is not a very good guitar player, but a great songwriter," Owen recalled with a laugh during the 30th anniversary Country Cares seminar in late January. "That one was interesting because it was just two of us here and we had one guitar ... That's one of the most memorable times for me, because of the effort we put forward that particular Saturday night."
Now, Owen goes on to say, he doesn't have to worry. Country artists pour into Memphis each year to champion the cause of raising funds for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital, making time for the seminar during even the most hectic of touring schedules. Owen sees his fellow country stars return year after year; in 2019, there were plenty of acts making their first-ever visits to the hospital, too.
"I had no idea. I really didn't. I mean, I'd heard the name St. Jude a million times," says rising country star Dillon Carmichael. "I think I'm still soaking it in right now, but the thing that impresses me most is that when they say nobody pays a dime, [they mean] nobody pays a dime. It's incredible.
"I think that everyone needs to tour St. Jude," he adds. "I think it should be your responsibility as a human being to see this."
Brandon Lay, another up-and-coming country artist visiting for the first time, concurs. Although he has known about St. Jude for most of his life, he didn't fully grasp the scope of its mission until he walked through the hospital's doors.
"I grew up not too far from here, in Jackson, Tenn., but it's one thing hearing about it and seeing it on TV and another thing being here," he explains. "You've got some of the world's smartest people in here, trying to help these kids, and I'm honored just to take a little time to see it."
Even artists who have visited the hospital in previous years say they learn something new about St. Jude with each return trip for Country Cares. "This is my second year, and I thought I knew what I was getting into," muses Jordan Rager. "But I think the biggest takeaway this year for me is that, obviously, the kids are the reason the families are here, but the families go through this, too. And all that St. Jude does to make these families comfortable, and get them through it as best they can, is honestly something I didn't think about before this weekend."
Duo Waterloo Revival add that they view each visit to St. Jude as a way to approach a dark and upsetting subject -- cancer -- through a new lens of hope, innovation and living joyfully in the meantime.
"Every time we come here, it means a little bit more to us, getting to interact with the kids and the families, and just seeing the joy here," the group explains. "It's spreading light, and anybody that comes here gets energized and wants to take that light and spread it to the rest of the country, show everybody ... that there is a possibility of ending this terrible disease. So that's really special for us, and we feel like we get our souls filled up every time we come here."
Over the course of the 2019 Country Cares for St. Jude Kids kickoff weekend, held in late January, country performers spent time interacting with patients, experiencing firsthand what daily life is like for these children. Some, including Rachel Wammack, came prepared with small gifts to leave as souvenirs.
"They're all just for fun, but my stylist gave me all of these rainbow [bracelets], and she said some of the stones are healing stones," Wammack says. "I got to give away a few bracelets to some cute little angel girls. That's what I brought 'em for! Always over-accessorize if you wanna give it away."
"I think that everyone needs to tour St. Jude. I think it should be your responsibility as a human being to see this." - Dillon Carmichael
Meanwhile, Austin Burke discovered a surprising hometown connection that led to an exciting gig for one special patient: "One of the little girls, Bridget, was actually from my hometown, and she goes to school with my two cousins that are twins," he recounts. "I got to invite her to be my date for opening day for the [Arizona] Diamondbacks. I'm singing the National Anthem, and she's gonna be my date now."
Growing up, Burke was treated for asthma and spent plenty of time in hospitals himself. Although he stressed that his experience was not the same as that of a child going through cancer treatment at St. Jude, he empathizes with how tough it can be to give up a normal life and move into a hospital. That's why the emphasis on maintaining a "normal" life at St. Jude is so critical, Burke points out.
"It doesn't smell like a hospital here," he explains. "You don't smell the rubber gloves or the cleaning supplies. The food -- you hear stories about kids that want their grandma's recipe for mac and cheese, and the chefs will go back and find grandma's recipe and make that mac and cheese for the kids ... It's awesome that they get to experience that level of normality. You hear stories about kids not wanting to leave here once they're cured."
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In fact, several former St. Jude kids did return for the 2019 Country Cares Seminar, to share their stories. Some explained that they had even decided to pursue careers at the hospital, or hoped to do so in the future.
Eliza, now in her mid-20s and an employee of ALSAC, St. Jude's fundraising and awareness organization, shared that she first arrived at the hospital as a toddler, with a massive tumor growing in her right rib cage. "After a few more rounds of tests, they determined that I had pleurapulmonary blastoma, a very rare tumor that St. Jude had only seen one other time ... There really weren't many diagnoses of this," she explains. "But I think the beauty of St. Jude is that we do get to treat our patients to the best of our ability, so St. Jude came up with their own protocol of how they were gonna treat me."
Not only did St. Jude treat Eliza's cancer -- and render her cancer-free, after surgery and chemotherapy -- but the hospital covered the cost of a surgery, years later, to address spinal complications she incurred as a long-term result of the cancer. Eliza recently celebrated 25 years cancer-free.
After spending so much time at St. Jude as a kid, Eliza says, she was eager to leave it and forge a new identity for herself outside of the hospital. However, once she started working in the "real world," she knew it was important to come back and be a part of a mission that had done so much for her as a child.
Another former St. Jude patient, Caleb, is now 18 and hoping to pursue an undergraduate degree in nursing. A Bahamas native, he was diagnosed with Stage IV acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2005, and was given approximately two weeks to live if he didn't receive immediate treatment. St. Jude paid for Caleb and his parents to fly from Miami, Fla., to Memphis, where they provided him with a warm coat for the ride from the airport to the hospital. He was in treatment for three years, and has now been cancer-free for a decade.
As he faces adulthood now, Caleb understands the desire Eliza felt to leave St. Jude behind. "You kinda want to walk away from St. Jude, but you come back every year. It's hard to just leave it in the past," he relates. "From 2008 to 2017, I would come for a visit and then just come back home."
The older he got, though, the more time Caleb spent hanging around and talking to people at the facility. He was willing to do "whatever," he says -- "I was like, 'I'll volunteer ... I'll file. I don't know how to file, but I'll file.'" -- and has gone from a fitness department intern to working in the ALSAC office.
"It's great being around family, and also I'm in school for pre-nursing," Caleb adds. "If nursing doesn't work out, I'll switch majors and do something with ALSAC."
As they flourish, St. Jude kids find ways to do new and important things with the memories they made and experiences they had during their time in the hospital. Some former patients raise money through projects of their own; one, a patient named Nick, has even released music inspired by his battle with cancer, to benefit the hospital.
"More than anything, more than music, it inspires you as a man and as a person ... It's an honor, and it makes you proud to be a part of something like this." - Brantley Gilbert
The visiting artists feel that inspiration, too: Many of the artists who attended Country Cares in 2019 said that they expected to walk away from the weekend brimming with ideas for new songs. Duo Haley & Michaels began thinking about making new music inspired by St. Jude even before they left the hospital.
"We saw the video, and Danny [Thomas] said, 'If I die tomorrow, I know why I was born.' That hit me so hard," the group's Shannon Haley explains. "I wanna write a song inspired by that idea, inspired by his dream and specifically about St. Jude. I think all of us can relate to that, you know?"
Hunter Hayes adds that, until recently, he might not have had the emotional wherewithal to write about his experience at St. Jude. "Honestly, I don't think I ever allowed-slash-equipped myself with the right safe place to to process these sorts of massive topics that I leave here with," he admits.
"I don't think I was really ready for that until maybe last year," Hayes adds. "So this might be my first time leaving really allowing myself to feel all of the feelings that I feel when I'm here, and put them into something."
However, Brantley Gilbert says that the impact of his experience is so overarching that it affects all aspects of his life, not just music: "More than anything, more than music, it inspires you as a man and as a person," he relates. "It's an upbeat environment, and these little children are warriors.
"It's an honor, and it makes you proud to be a part of something like this."
On Feb. 7-8, more than a dozen country radio stations owned by Townsquare Media, The Boot's parent company, will hold their 2019 Country Cares radiothons to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. In the past five years, these stations have raised more than $7 million, and even more money has come from additional TSM stations that hold radiothons later in the year. To join the fight against childhood cancer and become a Partner in Hope, visit St. Jude's official website.
Country Cares 2019: The Stars Meet St. Jude Patients