"I know I don't have to tell you guys it's been a rough couple of months for us," singer Jason Aldean told the crowd at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena Sunday night. Aldean was addressing the sold-out arena during his set at Country Rising, an all-star benefit concert with proceeds going to support victims of October’s shooting in Las Vegas, as well as victims of recent hurricanes in Texas, Florida, Puerto Rico and elsewhere. Aldean was performing onstage at the Route 91 Harvest festival when a shooter fired into the crowd, killing 58 and wounding hundreds more. The emotional significance of his presence at Country Rising wasn't lost on anyone.
"Let me just say this," Aldean continued. "I spent a lot of time, a long time, trying to make it in this business doing something that I really enjoy, and I love getting up every day and playing my shows for you guys. And I'll be damned if anybody's ever going to stop me from doing that."
It was a powerful moment, but the star-studded, revue-style concert – which also featured performances from George Strait, Reba McEntire, Little Big Town and many more – wasn't an entirely somber affair. (Carrie Underwood was also slated to perform, but canceled her appearance after breaking her wrist during a fall this weekend.)
The show was hosted by radio personality Bobby Bones, who filled time during the quick stage changeovers by encouraging attendees to contribute further to the Country Rising fund. Bones also provided occasional anecdotes and name-drops – like his story about a Christmas party at Keith Urban's house. The stage, literally a revolving stage, would rotate between each set to reveal the next performer, who would play just a handful of tunes, whether hits or deeper cuts that fit the evening's theme of hope and overcoming tragedy.
Lady Antebellum kicked off the night with a set that included an acoustic rendition of "Need You Now," the packed arena singing along passionately to the final chorus. Sam Hunt played a stripped-down medley of his tunes, including a massively well-received version of this year's smash hit "Body Like a Back Road." Country vet Martina McBride's hopeful "Love's the Only House" and "Anyway" fit the evening's theme well.
All star power and panache, Keith Urban maximized his limited time onstage perhaps better than anyone else, kicking off his set with a soulful performance of the lovesick ballad "Blue Ain't Your Color" before offering some searing guitar solos, rapid-fire verses and call-and-response vocals on a cover of the Police’s "So Lonely." Later, "I Hold On" was an energetic and fitting opener for Dierks Bentley, with Jon Pardi joining the singer at set's end for his own "Dirt on My Boots." The aforementioned Aldean – whose mere presence at Country Rising was an act of defiance in the face of would-be domestic terrorists – filled his set with good-time rippers like "My Kinda Party" and the chugging, metal-tinged "She’s Country." Little Big Town also kept things light, playing party anthem "Pontoon" alongside "Girl Crush" and the Taylor Swift-penned "Better Man."
During his set, powerhouse singer Chris Stapleton – who won Male Vocalist of the Year at the CMA Awards in Bridgestone just days earlier, and headlined the arena two nights in a row just weeks before that – pledged $250,000 to Country Rising's relief efforts. His performance was lean and tight, featuring just the singer, his guitar and a two-piece rhythm section on songs like "Nobody to Blame," "Broken Halos" and the gorgeous, pained ballad "Tennessee Whiskey."
As the concert stretched out toward the three-hour mark, the arena was transformed into Reba Land for a three-song performance from the iconic singer, who was full of flash and charisma on "Going Out Like That" and this year's gospel single "Back to God." Then, surprise: Video of Garth Brooks greeting Nashville and playing "Callin' Baton Rouge" was piped in on the big screen, with Brooks also introducing the show's closer, George Strait. Despite having retired from touring, Strait looked and sounded like a million bucks on "The Fireman," "Amarillo by Morning" and "Troubadour." He knew there were a lot of people hurting, he said, but he was glad to see everyone who had turned up for such an important cause.
And by the sound of it, Nashville was awfully glad to see him too.