Nobody knows better than Jason Aldean the cruel and random nature of tragedy.
When he signed up for a benefit concert back in September, he was volunteering to help hurricane victims. But by the time he took the stage in Nashville on Sunday night, he was singing, as well, for the victims of bullets that had rained down on his own Las Vegas concert.
As Aldean told the sold-out crowd at Bridgestone Arena, “It’s been a rough couple months for us up here.”
Aldean’s presence brought a raw immediacy to the evening, and the 40-year-old artist chose to respond with defiance.
“Let me just say this,” he said after rocking the arena with the first three songs of a four-song set, “I spent a lot of time – a long time – trying to make it in this business and doing something I really enjoy. And I love getting up every day and playing music and playing my shows for you guys, and I’ll be damned if anybody is ever gonna stop me from doing that.”
Concert-goers responded with some of the loudest cheers of the evening.
Aldean joined George Strait, Reba McEntire, Little Big Town, Keith Urban and Chris Stapleton, among others, to perform during the three-hour “Country Rising” concert. Together, they offered some of their most inspiring music and their greatest hits – often one and the same – and turned much of the evening into a community singalong. Originally organized to support victims of the recent hurricanes that struck Texas, Florida and the Caribbean islands, the beneficiaries were expanded after the Oct. 1 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival in Las Vegas.
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Lady Antebellum kicked off the show with “Run to You,” their 2009 hit that took on heightened relevance as they sang about a world that “keeps spinning faster into a new disaster.”
Before the show, trio member Hillary Scott spoke about the sense of vulnerability she and bandmates Charles Kelley and Dave Haywood have felt since the shooting at the festival, which featured Lady A two years ago.
“I think we’re all processing it in our own way, because we can all visualize ourselves in that environment – because we are in that environment every single night,” she told PEOPLE. After the shooting, she added, the group started an ongoing “conversation with our band and our crew … to know that we’re a safe place … We’ve got to find our safe places to talk about it and to process it.”
For his performance, Sam Hunt left behind his usual stage exuberance, taking a stool and prefacing his all-acoustic set with the first lines of Woody Guthrie’s egalitarian anthem, “This Land Is Your Land.” Hunt then teased the crowd with abbreviated versions of five hits, including “House Party” and “Take Your Time,” before slaking their appetite with a full-course “Body Like a Back Road.”
Pre-concert, Hunt told PEOPLE that his appearance at the Las Vegas festival the night before the shooting had shaken him deeply, knowing he was “most likely playing music for a lot of the same people who were there the following night. I feel a whole new empathy towards all of the terrible things that have happened. It became very real and tangible.”
For her set, Martina McBride brought some of her most stirring music with “Love’s the Only House” and “Anyway.” Dierks Bentley followed in kind with “I Hold On” and “Riser” (and he told PEOPLE before the concert that he’s been writing new music to address the recent tragedies). Bentley also shared his set with New Artist of the Year Jon Pardi, who performed “Dirt On My Boots.”
Little Big Town took a victory lap for Taylor Swift with “Better Man,” their Swift-penned hit that won Song of the Year at the CMA Awards last week. Urban showcased his CMA Single of the Year, “Blue Ain’t Your Color,” before leading the audience through a rollicking scat call and response during “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”
Arriving on stage with only a drummer and bass player, Stapleton effortlessly torched the room with his incendiary vocals and guitar play, offering such hits as “Nobody to Blame,” “Broken Halos” and “Tennessee Whiskey.” During the five-song set, Stapleton also announced a personal gift of $250,000 to the Country Rising Fund (which is being managed by the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee).
After McEntire’s three-song set, which included “I’m a Survivor,” Garth Brooks made a surprise appearance to sing “Callin’ Baton Rouge” via a remote video feed from his concert in Spokane, Washington. Originally scheduled to appear at the benefit, Brooks had to bow out after adding dates to his Spokane concert series, but he donated proceeds from two of the concerts to the fund. Carrie Underwood, also in the original lineup, was a last-minute cancellation after breaking her wrist on Friday in a fall at home.
From one country king to another, Brooks got the honor of introducing George Strait (though Brooks called him “the” king). Strait held down the final slot in the lineup with three crowd-pleasing hits: “The Fireman,” “Amarillo By Morning” and “Troubadour.”
The concert was an almost instant sellout, prompting organizers to put together a second concert Sunday evening at nearby Ascend Amphitheater with a lineup that included Pardi, Chris Janson, Lindsay Ell, Carly Pearce and Bobby Bones & The Raging Idiots. More than $4 million has been raised so far, and donations to the Country Rising Fund are still being accepted at countryrising.org, or you can text “NASHVILLE” to 41010 to make a $10 donation.