With as commonplace as awards ceremonies are in Music City, seldom are they as emotional as Wednesday night's grand event at City Winery Nashville. Much of this owes to the organization at the center of the festivities — Musicians on Call, which for 16 years has brought volunteer performers at all levels of celebrity into hospitals to perform for ailing patients.
The official reason for this occasion was to launch MOC's Rock the Room Tour, consisting of similar fundraising events elsewhere in the U.S. But on this night, attention was directed mainly to one specific honoree.
As creative director at Warner Music Nashville, Shane Tarleton has had a hand in the careers of many headline artists — Blake Shelton, Faith Hill, Jana Kramer, Kenny Rogers, Cole Swindell, Ashley Monroe, Hunter Hayes and many more. He has also devoted much of his rare spare time to MOC, not just by getting high-profile friends involved, but also by visiting and giving comfort himself at children's hospitals and hospices.
Before the festivities began, high-profile arrivals took their turns on a red carpet. Several extolled Tarleton by reflecting on how difficult it is to do what he does for those in medical need.
"I've never done it. It's not something I think I can do," said Reba McEntire. "I've gone and visited children's hospitals after tornadoes and disasters in Oklahoma, so I know it's one of the hardest things in the world to do. I told Shane I'm going to do it one of these days, I just have to get up the nerve to do it. That's why I respect him so much, because he does it all the time."
The event paid tribute to other supporters, as well. After noting that the waiting list of musicians ready to visit medical facilities for MOC has grown to a full year, Advisory Board Chair Diane Pearson presented the 2015 Volunteer Musician Award to singer/songwriter Harlan Pease, who expressed his thanks with a solo rendition of "How Sweet It Is (to Be Loved By You)."
MOC Board Chair Scott Welch gave the Volunteer Guide Award to Sandra Morgan, noting that she had donated her services 159 times since 2007. Speaking through tears as applause swelled, Morgan said, "I've seen blood pressures on monitors go up and down. I've seen unresponsive patients respond to hearing music. I've seen loved ones hold hands and sing along to words they might not have been able to say on their own."
MOC's top honor, the Golden Ukulele, went to Tarleton. It took several minutes for applause to die down before he was able to speak. Known as much for his humor as his humanitarianism, he confessed to being awestruck at how far he has come since moving to Nashville from North Carolina. "I mean, Reba is sitting at my table and my 13-year-old self is freaking out!" he shouted. And then, speaking to those who had yet to find a charity or cause to embrace, he added, "Find something that matters to your heart. Step outside of yourself for a while. And if you can't, you need to open your wallet."
Musical performances took place between video tributes and onstage remarks by Nashville star Charles Esten, Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, Warner Music Nashville CEO and President John Esposito and other dignitaries. Paying homage to her country roots, Kelsea Ballerini surprised listeners with an authentic rendering of Eddy Arnold's "Make the World Go Away" before concluding inevitably with her recent smash "Love Me Like You Mean It." With her customary strong stage presence and dramatic vocal delivery, Martina McBride concentrated on songs whose themes celebrated the triumph of strength over adversity, including "Blessed," "I'm Gonna Love You Through It" and "Wrong Again" before saying a few words about Tarleton.
"This is one of Shane's favorite songs," she began. "I don't know if I remember it. I don't know if anybody remembers it! I haven't sung it since 1999. But this was the second single from my first album. And one of the things I loved about it when I heard it was that it sounded like a Reba McEntire song — and I always wanted to be Reba!"
Then, without missing a beat, she sang "That's Me." Seated just in front of the stage, Tarleton was the first of many in the room to stand up as McBride smiled, blew him a two-handed kiss and left the stage.
Reba's set was similarly inspiring. . . and humorous. She addressed Tarleton directly, insisting "Shane came into this world screaming, 'I'm gonna be in country music!' You are, and we're all the better for it. I can write a check in a skinny minute but you actually go in there. So you are my hero." She followed with a set steeped in old-school country feel because, she pointed out, "I know you all love good old country music — and who better to sing it than an old country singer?"
Triggering ovations with a cappella harmonies at the end of "One Promise Too Late," the first chorus of "Somebody Should Leave" and the assertive last line of "I'm a Survivor," and commanding the stage with a pure, unadorned vocal on "I Finally Found Someone," Reba brought the evening to a finish by welcoming McBride back to sing Kelly Clarkson's part in the duet "Does He Love You."
But first, McBride declared, "I don't think this would be quite right unless we have Shane onstage."
With that, Tarleton, grinning as the crowd cheered, took his seat on a stool between the two singers. The two playfully fought for his attention, with McBride balling her fists at one point as Reba yanked his head toward her. Later, Reba affectionately rested her head on his shoulder; he responded by theatrically planting his hand on her thigh and, at the end of the song, sinking to his knees, hands clasped in grateful prayer, as the two stars applauded him one last time.