Fifteen years after first visiting St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital® where he was immediately inspired to pledge his support, three-time GRAMMY Award winner Darius Rucker continues to give back, surpassing the $3.6 million mark in his fundraising efforts with this year’s 14th annual “Darius and Friends” benefit concert on Monday night, June 5, which was paired with a corresponding golf tournament and silent auction on Tuesday, June 6. This year’s event alone raised an all-time high of $560,000 for the cause.
“We started this to be the first thing at CMA Fest and you guys have now made it a tradition,” Rucker shared with fans at the sold-out Ryman Auditorium as he opened the night that indeed has come to serve as an unofficial kickoff to CMA Fest as fans descend on Music City each summer. “Thank y’all for coming out. Thank you for supporting St. Jude.”
Now, more than a decade later, the annual event is renowned for its surprise lineup of stars and this year was no different. Sold out well in advance despite the famous friends not being revealed until they took the stage, the event praised by the Tennessean for “showcase[ing] generations of country stardom” featured more than 30 hit songs and beloved covers by Rucker, whom American Songwriter celebrated as “an engaging performer and affable host throughout the evening,”alongside his surprise guests HARDY, Jake Owen, Jelly Roll, Megan Moroney and Vince Gill.
After a live auction and donation round which added thousands to the fundraising tally, Rucker kicked off the main event with a trio of hits – with his Double Platinum-certified No. 1 “Alright,” top ten hit “Radio” and “Southern State of Mind” – before introducing the first friend of the evening as ACM Award-winner Jake Owen took the stage to perform a feel-good collection of songs including his Platinum-certified “Down to the Honkytonk” and “Barefoot Blue Jean Night” plus a timeless cover of Hank Williams Jr.’s classic “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound.”
“I’m really grateful for my friend Darius. He’s a great dude and what he’s done for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital is a big, big thing and that’s something that’s really near and dear to our hearts as country artists,” shared Owen during his set. “It’s ingrained in artists like myself throughout the years to use our platforms and Darius has done an incredible job with that. I’m super happy to be here.”
Rucker then returned to the stage, thrilling the crowd with his Platinum-certified breakout country hit “Don’t Think I Don’t Think About It,” chart-topping “For The First Time” and brand-new single “Fires Don’t Start Themselves” before introducing rising star Megan Moroney, who performed a trio of songs off her recently-released debut album, Lucky: “I’m Not Pretty,” “Girl in the Mirror” and current top five hit “Tennessee Orange.”
“In Georgia, they call it a sin,” she sang of wearing Tennessee Volunteers orange, with famous Gamecock fan Rucker responding cheekily on social media that evening, “it’s a sin in South Carolina, too!”
The evening’s host continued the show with his Platinum-certified hits “It Won’t Be Like This For Long” and “This” before inviting 22-time GRAMMY Award winner Vince Gill to the stage. Performing solo with only an acoustic guitar, Gill’s showstopping set included “Whenever You Come Around,” “When I Call Your Name” and “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” written for his late brother.
“I’ll play a church song here at the Mother Church,” he shared of the poignant song to close his set.
Rucker then returned to the stage, with his feel-good recent No. 1 hit “Beers and Sunshine” and 2017 chart-topper “If I Told You” before thrilling fans with his Hootie & the Blowfish favorite “Hold My Hand,” bringing the full house to their feet for a singalong of the classic – which wouldn’t be the last of the night as beloved ballad “Let Her Cry” also made a set list appearance.
Still clad in his jersey from the Folds of Honor celebrity softball tournament earlier in the evening, Jelly Roll took the stage next for two songs off his brand-new album, Whitsitt Chapel, released less than a week ago. From his first No. 1 at country radio, “Son of a Sinner,” to current top 15 single “Need a Favor,” Jelly Roll’s fourth appearance on the Ryman stage in less than a week highlighted the earnest truth-telling that has made him beloved to so many fans.
“I only talk to God when I need a favor,” Rucker sang as he returned to the stage following the performance. “What a great line!”
Rucker kept the Hootie & the Blowfish nostalgia coming through his next trio of songs as he performed “Only Wanna Be With You” as well as his solo hits “Homegrown Honey” and “Comeback Song” before introducing the final surprise guest of the evening, HARDY, who highlighted both his songwriting prowess with “A Rock” and his rowdy showmanship with “Unapologetically Country as Hell.”
Closing out the memorable evening, the night’s host returned to the stage one final time for rousing covers of Amy Winehouse’s “Valerie,” Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” and Prince’s “Purple Rain,” as well as his own “Hands On Me” and, according to tradition, a sold-out Ryman singalong for “Wagon Wheel,” the feel-good energy throughout the auditorium symbolic of the night as a whole.
This year’s milestone fundraising event adds yet another successful page to the decade-plus history of “Darius & Friends.” Prior guests have included Lauren Alaina, Jason Aldean, Brooks & Dunn, Brothers Osborne, Kane Brown, Luke Bryan, Luke Combs, Sheryl Crow, Charles Kelley of Lady A, Ashley McBryde, A.J. McLean of the Backstreet Boys, Brad Paisley, Kenny Rogers and Tommy Thayer of KISS, among many others.
The annual fundraising event, made possible with support from generous sponsors CDW, AMD, Amazon Web Services, IBM, Arrow Electronics, and Hendrix Enterprises, helps ensure families never receive a bill from St. Jude for treatment, travel, housing or food – so they can focus on helping their child live.