As he always does, Darius Rucker got CMA Fest week off to a great start with his annual Darius and Friends concert to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “I can’t thank you guys enough,” he told the sold out crowd at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. “We put this thing on sale seven months before and it sells out in minutes. Nobody even knows who is playing yet, but you know you got me.”
Though Rucker marveled that the show sells out before the line up is announced, fans know Rucker and friends will deliver a memorable night, and this year didn’t disappoint. Jimmie Allen, Kane Brown, Luke Bryan, Sheryl Crow, Travis Denning, Lady Antebellum’s Charles Kelley and Brett Young kept the audience on its feet and singing along throughout the event. Over the years, Darius and Friends has raised an astounding two million dollars to benefit St. Jude, the Memphis hospital/research facility that treats children with cancer at no cost. Before the show started, thousands were raised with a live auction that included a VIP package to see Hootie & the Blowfish in Denver and two guitars signed by all of the benefit’s performers.
There were so many great moments during the music-filled night, which ended with an all star performance of “Wagon Wheel.” Here are eight of the best moments (in no particular order) that fans will be sure to be buzzing about all week.
Travis Denning Sings “Ramblin’ Man” – Denning’s performance of his Mercury debut single “David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs” was a crowd pleaser, but it was his searing cover of the Allman Brothers’ classic “Ramblin’ Man” that helped set the tone for a night of great music. His guitar work was particularly impressive and his vocal attack was equally memorable. No doubt he left the audience checking their Fest schedules to see where he was playing next.
Sheryl Crow & Darius Rucker Perform “The First Cut is the Deepest” – Crow opened her three-song set with this poignant Cat Stevens ballad. Rucker came out from the wings to join her on the second verse and their voices had a sweet, earthy blend. Seeing the longtime friends join forces on this pop classic raised goosebumps. Crow thanked St. Jude for “doing God’s work” and kept the crowd enthralled with “Strong Enough” before finishing with the anthemic “Soak Up the Sun.”
Darius Rucker Gets Sultry with “Hands on Me” - Throughout the night Rucker took the stage to deliver such hits as “Alright,” “For the First Time,” “Radio” and “Comeback Song” and even served up a terrific rendition of Tracy Lawrence’s classic “Time Marches On,” but when he slowed it down and got soulful on the sultry “Hands on Me,” the temperature in the room heated up. There’s nothing like a great song in the hands of a master.
Jimmie Allen’s Standout “Unwell” Cover – Newcomer Jimmie Allen shared with the audience that Rucker was the reason he wanted to become a singer right before he launched into his multi-week No. 1 hit “Best Shot.” As he wrapped up his first number, Allen said the other reason he wanted to be a singer was Matchbox Twenty. He then proceeded to deliver a potent cover of the band’s 2003 chart-topping hit “Unwell” that had the audience on its feet singing along. Allen even left the stage and walked through the Ryman singing the tune as the crowd went wild. Choosing a Matchbox Twenty cover demonstrated both Allen’s good taste in music and his versatility as an artist, proving that he’s a new act who is likely to be around a long, long time.
Luke Bryan Brings The Party with “That’s My Kind of Night” - “You’re the crazy ones that come in three days early,” Bryan said surveying the enthusiastic crowd present before the official CMA Fest kick off on Thursday. Always a crowd pleaser, the Georgia born superstar kicked off his set with his single, “Knockin’ Boots,” and then had the crowd singing along to “Most People are Good,” but the pièce de résistance was when he unleashed his high energy performance of “That’s My Kind of Night” which had the audience on its feet singing along. It felt like CMA Fest had officially begun!
Kane Brown Proves Staying Power With “Three Wooden Crosses” – Brown opened his set with the crowd pleasing and appropriate “Short Skirt Weather” before asking if there were any Randy Travis fans in the audience. Of course there were, so the crowd was thrilled when he sang Travis’ award-winning hit “Three Wooden Crosses.” I’ve heard the song a million times and I still cried. Moments like this are why folks keep declaring Kane Brown the future of country music.
Brett Young Heats Things Up With “Let’s Get it On” – Young gave fans what they came to see as he delivered his hits “Sleep Without You” and “Like I Loved You,” but then further explored his soulful side with an incredible cover of the Marvin Gaye classic “Let’s Get it On.” The song was a perfect match for his smooth, evocative voice and his performance was one of the highlights of the night.
Darius Rucker and Charles Kelley Pay Homage to Prince with “Purple Rain” - It’s always fun to see good friends on stage together and Rucker and Kelley’s camaraderie made for a spirited cover of the Prince classic “Purple Rain.” Alternately soulful and frenetic, the two singers left their mark on one of this generation’s best-loved anthems and had the audience on its feet singing and swaying along.