Big & Rich’s John Rich recalls the first time he walked into St. Jude’s Childrens’ Research Hospital in Memphis. “It was back in 1994 when I was in the group Lonestar,” Rich recalled to Sounds Like Nashville. “I was in my early 20s, and the last thing on a guy’s mind at that age trying to make it in Country Music is there being thousands of kids in a hospital fighting cancer. I walked in and met some of those kids, and I walked back into that hospital and thought ‘Wow. How fortunate am I and the people around me that we don’t have to fight something like that. I want to do whatever I can to help out.”
His passion for the organization grew year by year with his participation in the annual Country Cares For St. Jude Kids event held each winter, but he had a grander plan in mind. “Little by little, we chipped at it, but ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ was really the big tipping point. When Trump said that he wanted us on the show, he said it was for charity, and who did I want to play for? I said I wanted to play for St. Jude. My whole goal on that show was to raise a million bucks for them, because nobody had ever gotten anywhere close to that amount. It wasn’t really the million dollars, but it was to get the word out about St. Jude and what the place stands for, and what they do for kids. That was really the goal. I think we accomplished that. That was 2011, and now it’s 2016. So, five years after that, the tradition continues.”
Rich was in the Bluff City this past Tuesday night for his annual John Rich & Friends concert, which is an event he looks forward to each year. “Sometimes, you do things as a one-off, where you go and do an event and it goes great,” he says, adding “But, every now and then something is so special that it takes on a life of its’ own and becomes a tradition. This year is the fifth year we’ve done John Rich & Friends. I’m just glad to know that I have many friends to do five years like that.”
Rich wanted to make sure that his involvement with St. Jude continued long after “Celebrity Apprentice.” “I wanted to keep doing stuff for them forever. I’m a tool in the toolbox. Use me. We talked about what we could do as an annual event, and the John Rich & Friends idea came up. We were talking about songwriters, country artists, rock stars, you name it – we wanted to go across the genres. Year by year, it’s been a different show all year – all with the same focus of these talented people coming together to raise money for St. Judes. So, to hit year number five is a very cool milestone.”
Each year, the concert takes on a different theme, and Rich says that 2016 was going to be a fun night for all involved. “This year, I wanted to go at it from a singer-songwriter perspective. There’s some interesting guys in town – some that you know, some guys you probably haven’t heard of. But, I’m knocked out by them – Frankie Ballard, Drake White, Kristian Bush – a lot of people know him from Sugarland, but they don’t know him on his own, but he’s one of the best songwriters in town, and has one of the biggest hearts out there,” he says.
There is also one other name on the bill that has been in Rich’s corner for well over two decades. “We also have Rodney Clawson. He was actually my basketball coach in seventh grade in Amarillo, Texas. He taught me how to shoot a free throw, and how to pass a baton in track. Lonestar did a show in Amarillo when I was about nineteen, and he came out and handed me a cassette of some songs he had been writing. He was a farmer, as well as a basketball player. Now, he’s written over twenty number one songs over the past decade, and has won BMI Songwriter of the Year repeated times. So, I’ve invited him out,” he says, adding there’s a little bit of Rock and Roll royalty. “Then you have Robby Krieger from The Doors, so there’s a very cool mash-up of intensely talented people who have a passion for St. Jude and a love of music.”
The whole staff is extremely grateful for the continued support that the Country format gives to St. Jude, says Richard Shadyac, Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising and awareness organization for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. “It’s absolutely incredible the way the Country Music industry supports St. Jude. What Darius did on Monday was remarkable – he’s even cut a record for us one time. John has done this five times, and we were just in Nashville for the Rock N Roll Marathon, and John held a concert for us, and helped us raise money.”
Shadyac said that any conversation about the Country connection to St. Jude has to begin with the man who swung the door wide open to the Country industry. “Randy Owen started our Country Cares For St. Jude’s program, and he was a dear friend of my father, as well as our founder, Danny Thomas. He’s carried that on for decades now. I think we’re close to a half-billion dollars that has been raised through the program.”
Whenever an artist makes a visit to the hospital, Shadyac says it’s a special moment for all involved. “All you need to do is to look at the faces of the kids, and you see how they light up when they see the artists. You see how genuine the artists are in spending time with the kids, and being silly with the kids, and letting the kids be kids. For the teenage patients that are a little bit older, they get to see the artists that they listen to on the radio every single day. So, it’s incredibly meaningful.” One patient of the hospital, Allie Allen, actually has formed a deep friendship with rising superstar Kelsea Ballerini, who invited the Houston (TN) High School student to be her guest to the 49th Annual Country Music Association Awards last November. Shadyac says it’s a great thing to see that tradition of caring continuing on to the new generation of Country stars. “Allie and Kelsea are wonderful friends, and Kelsea has become a wonderful supporter of St. Jude. We’re deeply indebted for all she does.”
“St. Jude Presents John Rich and Friends” concert is just one of the many festivities that are a part of this week’s FedEx St. Jude Classic, the annual PGA TOUR signature event at TPC Southwind.
For more information about St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, visit StJude.org