It’s rare that one gets to witness the passing of the torch from one generation to the next, but that’s exactly what happened at the annual Country Cares for St. Jude Songwriter’s Dinner in Memphis on January 26th.
It started out as an impromptu sing-along, but Michael Ray and Jake Owen’s off-the-cuff performance of Alabama’s “Lady Down on Love” quickly turned into a poignant tribute to their hero, Alabama frontman Randy Owen. The three men, joined by Clint Black, initially traded lines on the 1983 chart-topper, but the Alabama singer ended up laying back and letting the two younger country stars take over as he wiped away tears.
“The whole night was very surreal,” Michael Ray tells Rolling Stone. “I grew up listening to and learning Clint Black and Alabama music, and I’m a big fan of Jake’s. I feel like more than ever some of the men and women who came before us are kind of forgotten. We need to remind them in a respectful way that they paved the way for where we are as a genre. In that moment, I thought, ‘I want Randy to know that Alabama made a lot of people start learn guitar and move to Nashville.’ I’m one of them. ‘Lady Down on Love’ was the third song I learned on guitar.”
The night was full of moments like this, with sing-alongs of Alabama hits such as “Tennessee River” and “Mountain Music” as well Clint Black offering “Better Man,” but this particular performance of “Lady Down on Love” gets at the deeper reason these artists were all together on a Saturday night donating their time and talents to support St. Jude’s mission.
In 1989, Randy Owen challenged the country radio industry to band together and raise money for the lifesaving work being done at St. Jude to fight childhood cancer and other catastrophic illnesses. In the three decades since the Country Music Hall of Fame member spearheaded the Country Cares for St. Jude campaign, the annual St. Jude radiothons on country stations have raised more than $800 million for the cause.
“I have a few years left, but I’m what you call irrelevant as far as modern radio goes,” Owen tells Rolling Stone. “The kids and families at St. Jude are going to need somebody or a group of folks to carry on. That’s my wish, and I’ve always said it’s not about me. It’s about we. It’s about the whole industry. My wishes are that it goes on and continues to be successful as long as there’s artists and songwriters making music on the radio.”