Top Country and Christian Artists Salute the Honorees at T.J. Martell Foundation Gala

Written by Deborah Evans Price
Top Country and Christian Artists Salute the Honorees at T.J. Martell Foundation Gala
Pictured L-R: (Back Row) 2020 Nashville Honors Gala Co-Chair Steve Buchanan, Charles Esten, CeCe Winans, Wade Hayes, Michael Ray, Carly Pearce, Reba McEntire, Vince Gill, 2020 Nashville Honors Gala Co-Chair Jensen Sussman, CEO of T.J. Martell Foundation Laura Heatherly, Southern Region Board President of T.J. Martell Foundation John Huie; (Front Row) Patrick G. Emery, Dr. Jordan Berlin, Clint Higham, Amy Grant, Jim and Laurie Seabury

Kenny Chesney, Vince and Corrina Gill, Reba McEntire, Rascal Flatts, Michael Ray, Carly Pearce, Wade Hayes and gospel icon CeCeWinans took the stage last night (Feb.24th) at Nashville’s Omni Hotel to celebrate the honorees at the T.J. Martell Foundation’s 12th Annual Nashville Honors Gala.

Hosted by Charles Esten, the evening celebrated Amy Grant, Dr. Jordan Berlin, manager Clint Higham, real estate developer Patrick Emery and community builders Jim and Laurie Seabury. At the end of the evening, Esten announced that they had raised $985,000 and urged someone to donate $15,000 to bring it up to a million. Someone in the crowd generously obliged.

“I’m going to keep saying ‘yes,’” Esten told Sounds Like Nashville when asked about hosting the event for the eighth year. “In a town of so many charitable events, this is one of the crown jewels for sure. It’s not just in the caliber of performers they have and people, it’s honoring the best of Nashville. On top of that, it’s fighting cancer, so what’s not to love? It’s always a great night.”

Honorees pictured L-R: Clint Higham, Jim and Laurie Seabury, Amy Grant, Patrick G. Emery, Dr. Jordan Berlin; Photo credit: Jason Davis

T.J. Martell’s mission to fight cancer is close to Esten’s heart. “My daughter Addie is 20-years-old now, but when she was two and a half, she was diagnosed with leukemia,” he said. “She’s happy and healthy now, a strong young woman and playing soccer in college, but we know that that didn’t just happen. We know that that came because certain people got together to raise money to fund research and to help folks and that’s why she’s here. So it didn’t seem right in any way to just walk away from that. It seemed right to jump in and do as much as we can until cancer is gone.”

Hayes walked the red carpet with Dr. Berlin, who was honored with the Medical Research Advancement Award. “It means the world. I’m humbled. I’m honored,” Dr. Berlin told SLN. “It’s such a flattering thing to win such a big award and to have such a big deal made of it. I can’t tell you how honored I am. I don’t have good words for it.”

Hayes has survived stage four colon cancer twice and credits Dr. Berlin for saving his life. Hayes was the first performer of the evening and sang “Go Live Your Life,” a song he wrote based on the advice Dr. Berlin gave him. “It means more than he could ever know,” Hayes said of being asked to honor Dr. Berlin at the gala. “I sincerely worked on my remarks for him. I rewrote it five times and I’m still not finished because I just don’t have enough time to say everything I want to say. He’s an incredible man.”

“I want more of them,” Dr. Berlin says of survivors like Hayes. “That’s my goal at the end of the night will be to go back and work harder so there will be more people like Wade.”

The second performer of the evening was Winans who sang “Why Me Lord” before Emery was presented with the Spirit of Nashville Award. “I was so honored when they called and asked me to come and sing to honor Pat Emery tonight,” she told SLN on the red carpet. “What an awesome man, awesome heart! He’s a man with great vision, a man who cares, so I’m honored to be here.”

Winans is a strong supporter of T.J. Martell. “They work to help people who are hurting and are in pain,” she said. “It’s such a blessing when you have your health every day, but yet there are so many people who are fighting for every breath. Whenever you take the time and your energy and put your money to help those who need a cure, that’s God’s heart. So I’m glad to be a part of this tonight because I feel it is the heartbeat of that.”

Part of the proceeds raised during the event came from a silent auction as well as a live auction conducted by radio personality Shawn Parr. Bidding was lively with the audience competing for the chance to have dinner at Grant and Gill’s Nashville home as well as score other noteworthy prizes. Another item that drew lots of action was the chance to fish with legendary sportsman Bill Dance at Chris Young’s 4th annual Cast for a Cure Big Bass Tournament on May 31st. McEntire bested the other bidders by paying $10,000 and claiming the prize.

Following the auction, Esten introduced Rascal Flatts’ Joe Don Rooney, Gary LeVox and Jay DeMarcus who performed an acoustic version of their hit “Fast Cars and Freedom” before Jim and Laurie Seabury were presented with the Lifetime Humanitarian Award for their work in the community.

Next up, Gill took the stage to honor his wife Amy Grant, who was receiving the Tony Martell Outstanding Entertainment Achievement Award. “The best you can get for free on a Monday night,” he quipped as he and his and Amy’s daughter Corrina prepared to perform. “This is the first time we’ve done this together,” he said before Corrina played piano and he sang “When My Amy Prays,” from his 2019 album Okie.  There was barely a dry eye in the house.

vince gill
Vince Gill along with he and Grant’s daughter perform “When My Amy Prays”; Photo credit: Jason Davis

Earlier in the evening on the red carpet, Gill spoke of significance of the gala. “What’s beautiful about an event like this is it takes a tragedy sometimes to motivate somebody to make a change, to try to make life better for someone else and that’s at the core of what this is,” he says of the T.J. Martell Foundation, which was founded by the late Tony Martell after he lost his son to cancer in 1975. 

“Everybody is willing to chip in and that’s when we’re at our best, that’s when we are a community,” Gill continued. “That’s when we’re all those things we should be all the time.”

Before Grant took the stage to accept her honor, there were video tributes by Carole King, James Taylor, Michael W. Smith, Peter Cetera and many other luminaries. Then McEntire presented the award. “As long as I’ve known you, you’ve radiated a light,” she said before presenting Grant with the honor.

amy grant
Amy Grant receiving the Tony Martell Outstanding Entertainment Achievement Award at T.J. Martell 2020 Honors Gala; Photo credit: Jason Davis

Grant first learned she was getting the award last summer. “I was in the recording studio and I was doing a song with Michael W. Smith and Marc Martel for last year’s Christmas show,” she told SLN. “John Huie, my booking agent since 1984, and my manager, Jennifer Cooke, said, ‘Come here we want to tell you something,’ and so we high-fived each other and are grateful for a lifetime of memories.”

Like Gill, Grant has always admired Martell for turning the pain of losing his son into launching an organization that could helps save others. “When Tony Martell’s son died from cancer, that father who was a heavyweight in the music business, took all of the that pain and he said, ‘Let’s rally,’ and so there’s no telling how many millions of dollars have been raised for cancer research. I just know that the music business shows up when it’s a T.J. Martell event.”

Indeed they do. Chesney was on hand to honor his longtime manager Clint Higham, who received the evening’s final honor—the Joel A. Katz Music is Medicine Chairman’s Award. Ray and his wife Pearce sang “Till Each Tear You Cry Becomes a Rose.” “It’s just great to be a part of good energy and a good foundation that just stands for great things,” Ray told SLN. “Clint is the guy who is the guy who never wants to be honored and we’re honoring him tonight so that makes it even better. I’m proud to be in his corner. He’s always in ours watching us and now we get to be in his watching him.”

Pearce added, “Clint has changed the game for me in my artist career. I always heard those stories about what a manager means to an artist, how they help you and he’s done that for me. He’s like family to me and I’m really happy to be able to sing for him tonight.”

After their performance, there were video tributes from Barbara Mandrell, Shane McAnally, Scooter Braun, Louise Mandrell and Old Dominion, among others. “I’ve always felt that music has always been medicine in my life,” Chesney said before presenting his manager of 27 years with the honor. “I could have went down a lot of roads with a lot of people, but Clint and I have went down every single one of them together and I’m proud of that.”

As someone used to serving his artists and other from the background, Higham was a little embarrassed about the spotlight focusing on him. “Being honored for something I do because I have been blessed really seems overwhelming,” he told the capacity crowd. “The real honorees are the folks at T.J. Martell who support those fighting the cancer battle and doing research to find a cure.”