Nashville Rising could just as well have been called Nashville Blushing, what with all the kisses performers were blowing to Music City during Tuesday night's (June 22) sold-out concert for flood relief efforts.
Virtually every one of the 20 acts that took the stage at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena proclaimed their affection for the city and its water-logged but valiant inhabitants.
The flood that struck Middle Tennessee in early May caused 23 deaths and more than $2 billion in damage. Income from the concert, Nashville Rising: A Benefit for Flood Recovery, will be donated to the Community Foundation of Middle Tennessee for redistribution to flood-related causes.
Organized by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, the event was everything one hoped it would be -- a raft of big names, impassioned performances and a minimum of down time between the exit of one act and the entrance of another. The event ran from 7 to 11:08 p.m.
Each act was limited to two or three songs and all were backed by McGraw's endlessly versatile band, the Dancehall Doctors.
Carrie Underwood kicked the doors open, figuratively speaking, with a rambunctious rendering of "Undo It." Clad in a black short-sleeved jacket, white V-neck blouse and gold lamé midthigh skirt, she was a high-heeled dynamo as she warmed up the already festive crowd. She ended on a more somber note with "Jesus, Take the Wheel/How Great Thou Art."
Blake Shelton said that although he no longer lives in Nashville, he resided in the area for 11 years while he was getting his career underway and that he still holds the city in high regard. He began his set with the comic "Some Beach" and concluded with "Hillbilly Bone." Trace Adkins strode out midsong to join him.
Lynyrd Skynyrd pumped up the volume with the lascivious "What's Your Name" and no doubt set Southern hearts pumping with "Sweet Home Alabama." Lead singer Johnny Van Zant wrapped his microphone in what appeared to be a Confederate flag for the final song.
Accompanying himself on keyboards, Michael W. Smith offered the soothing "Place in This World" and "Bridge Over Troubled Waters," the latter of which he said he found especially suited to the occasion.
Amy Grant arrived next. She talked about the satisfaction of working physically with families to restore their flood-ravaged homes and noted that her son, Matthew, found such work a great way for a shy guy to get dates. She sang "Better Than a Hallelujah" and "Jesus Loves Me/They'll Know We Are Christians."
Montgomery Gentry stirred up the scene with the homeward-looking "Something to Be Proud Of" and "My Town." Eddie Montgomery continues to work the stage with the energy and determination of someone intent on winning a talent contest, and Troy Gentry remains a commanding vocalist.
Taylor Swift, who wasn't scheduled to come on until 10:10 p.m., popped up instead at just before 8:30. The crowd adored her. After warming up with "You Belong With Me," Swift told the roaring fans, "I love you like I love sparkling dresses, and I love you like I love telling love stories." Naturally, she wrapped with "Love Story."
When Luke Bryan came out, someone in the media room ventured that he probably wouldn't be singing his current single, "Rain Is a Good Thing." And he didn't. Rather, he made do admirably with two earlier hits, "Country Man" and "Do I." To establish that he was, indeed, a "country man," Bryan pulled a crumpled baseball cap from his back pocket and put it on for his closing number.
LeAnn Rimes upped the ante on John Anderson's "Swingin'" by transforming it from a goofy adolescent ditty to a steamy recollection of earthly delights. Her costume -- a red, form-fitting dress and extravagantly high heels -- aided her immeasurably in this mission. She ended her set with "What I Cannot Change," which, she observed, was "kind of fitting in the face of adversity."
Martina McBride wailed on the harmonica to introduce her affectionate but world-weary "Love's the Only House." Moving as this piece was, McBride really outdid herself on "Anyway," a song so rugged and uplifting it should be in a Broadway musical. Instead of singing the lyrics at the top of her lungs, as she might have done during her early years, McBride accorded them the dramatic shadings that made them blossom. It was one of the evening's high points.
Following McBride's set, there was a 30-minute break in the music, during which various organizations presented checks to the Community Foundation. Among them were donations from the Nashville Predators Foundation ($130,000), Jackson National Life Insurance ($250,000), the Academy of Country Music's Lifting Lives Foundation ($100,000), the Krupa-Forbes Foundation ($100,000) and BMI ($50,000 plus a matching funds offer). The makers of Sharpie pens pledged to donate more than $250,000 worth of school supplies.
ZZ Top got the music going again with "Sharp Dressed Man," followed by "La Grange" and "Tush." Said singer-guitarist Billy Gibbons, "We oughta just fly this building from town to town and do it every night."
Limping out on a foot she'd broken weeks ago, Julie Roberts told the crowd, "I put on heels for you all tonight." After explaining that the flood destroyed her home, she sang her self-penned "Somebody Does."
Miranda Lambert walked out to thunderous applause, which she promptly rewarded by singing "White Liar" and the current chart-topper, "The House That Built Me."
"I don't know how to follow that," said Jason Aldean, who was up next, "other than sing about the things I love -- dogs, farm equipment, love, those things."
And that he did, setting the mood with "Big Green Tractor" and then revving up the hormones with "She's Country." Aldean works the stage with such ease and authority, his attitude alone is entertaining.
Still well-muscled and assertive, Billy Ray Cyrus stepped out in a sleeveless shirt, with his left arm festooned in tattoos from shoulder to wrist. Wearing a do-rag and shades and playing an acoustic guitar, he powered through his 1992 hit, "Could've Been Me."
"I always look for a good excuse to come home," said Miley Cyrus, as she followed her dad to the stage, where she caught the spirit of the evening with "The Climb."
Toby Keith acknowledged that he wasn't a Nashvillian but explained that his band members lived there and had suffered in the flood. After a false start with his microphone off, he blew into the cocky but rueful "As Good as I Once Was" and finished with "I Love This Bar," which, he reminded the crowd, was a place of comfort in a time of need.
Then came one of the biggest surprises of the night.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Academy Award-winner Sandra Bullock," intoned an off-stage announcer.
Looking very resolved and businesslike, Bullock marched out carrying an acoustic guitar. This being an important evening, she said, she thought of introducing Faith Hill with some humor, perhaps even "a wardrobe malfunction."
But that would have been insufficient, she said, adding, "I had to contribute a lot more than being funny." With that, she sat on a stool, cradled her guitar and admonished the audience, "If I could have some quiet, please."
After a dramatic pause to allow the camera to focus on her technique, she plucked out a couple of notes that might have been part of a melody. It was hard to tell. So, abandoning this ploy, Bullock simply called Hill to the stage -- and bowed to her extravagantly as the two passed.
A vision in cascading blond locks and elegant black pantsuit, Hill again thanked the crowd for its support before displaying her superb vocal chops on "Stronger."
She concluded with "Piece of My Heart." But it was so much more adult and hard-hitting than her 1994 recording of the song. She leaned forward from the edge of the stage and actually dared the audience to feed back the emotional intensity she was pouring out, but it could only cheer in wonder.
No slouch at stirring audiences himself, McGraw capped the evening with "Southern Voice" and "Live Like You Were Dying."
Several artists sent their best wishes by video.
Actress and Nashville native Reese Witherspoon dispatched her greetings from the set of her upcoming movie, Water for Elephants. "We get together and take care of each other," she said.
Said Dolly Parton, "Nashville Rising is just another way of saying, 'Love thy neighbor.' ... That water never did get high enough to dampen our spirits."
"I wish I could be with you," said late night talk show host Craig Ferguson. "But I can't get away from CBS. They're bastards."
View photos from the Nashville Rising concert.