Review: Orlando's 'Country Strong' benefit concert brings country stars, raw emotions to CFE Arena
Tears welling in his eyes, Canaan Smith thanked Orlando's sold-out CFE Arena for singing with him Tuesday night in what "probably will be the most memorable show of my life."
"I feel at home in this city," Smith, whose family lives in Orlando, told the crowd of more than 7,000. "We're all Orlando Strong, and love conquers all."
That was the idea of Country Strong, a benefit concert for the OneOrlando Fund, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars victims of the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting and their families.
Organized by Orlando country station K92.3-FM, this was the first star-stuffed benefit since the shooting (though more are coming, starting with a show by Imagine Dragons and Nate Ruess at Hard Rock Live on Wednesday). It sold out in just 34 hours, thanks in no small part to the talent on stage -- nine big Nashville names, including Cole Swindell, Billy Currington and Tyler Farr, assembled with the haste and efficiency you'd expect from an ACM Award-winning country station.
"This is truly freakin' awesome and amazing right here," Farr said. "And this is what separates country music from any other genre in the whole damn world."
In some ways it made sense that Nashville artists would be among the first to respond to the massacre at Pulse. Historically, country music has largely embraced the LGBT community, from the many gay fans of Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire to celebrated gay and lesbian songwriters like Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally. Keith Urban made headlines worldwide when, during his Tampa concert last week, he dedicated a stirring cover of U2's One to the victims; video of that performance played Tuesday in Orlando.
For some of the participants, the shootings hit close to home -- literally, in the case Smith, whose family lives in Orlando, or Michael Ray, who hails from nearby Eustis.
"I've never been more proud to be from Central Florida," said Ray, urging the crowd to stand and cheer for a section of emergency responders in the crowd.
Ray delivered the evening’s most heartfelt set, as Orlando was the city that launched him to stardom. Watching the news of the Pulse shooting, he said, broke his heart, made him furious.
“No matter your race, gender, sexuality, what you believe, guys, we are here as a community, period,” he said, leading into a cover of Bob Marley's One Love. “There is way more love than there is hate, and right now, on a Tuesday night, at 11-something at night, we are showing it. Love is bigger than hate. Love wins every time. And we are going to make a stand.”
It was a hard and emotional stance to take on what could be a hot-button issue among country music’s more conservative fans. Gun culture is a very real thing on Music Row; the No. 2 country song in the land right now has the word Huntin' in the title. The National Rifle Association has an entertainment arm called NRA Country whose motto is "Celebrate the Lifestyle." Among the nearly three dozen artists highlighted on its website are Farr and Easton Corbin, both of whom performed in Orlando on Tuesday.
Unsurprisingly, no one came close to bringing up gun legislation on Tuesday. Several artists offered some variation of the phrase "I don't really know what to say," choosing instead to focus on honoring victims and raising Orlando's spirits.
"Our job is to uplift Orlando for just a few hours," Farr said. "So that's what we're going to try to do."
It worked, despite a stripped-down acoustic format that gave many songs a more somber sheen, especially on emotive tracks like Farr's A Guy Walks Into a Bar, and Smith's arena-wide sing-along cover of the Goo Goo Dolls' Iris.
Artists like Jerrod Niemann and Maddie and Tae kept things more upbeat in their 15-to-30-minute sets, while twang-totin' Florida native Corbin brought the night's only old-school fiddle action, raising voices on All Over the Road. Parmalee -- who have actually been victims of gun violence, a robbery in 2010 that nearly killed drummer Scott Thomas -- brought a dose of rock energy and attitude late in the night, weaving 50 Cent's In Da Club into Musta Had a Good Time.
Headliner Cole Swindell was on-brand as always, right up to the omnipresent CS cap atop his head. He roamed the stage all night on hits like Chillin’ It and You Ain’t Worth the Whiskey, and dedicated his heartfelt hit You Should Be Here to the 49 victims at Pulse.
“That song is for you, Orlando,” he said.
A number of artists sent good wishes via video, including Carrie Underwood, Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Little Big Town, the Band Perry, Chris Young and Thompson Square, who condemned "this heinous act of violence, this unspeakable act of hate."
That was about as overt as any artist got about the tragedy at Pulse. But that doesn’t mean it didn’t have an impact.
In 2015, Currington was scheduled to play a benefit for victims and families of the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School. He backed out when Second Amendment advocates tried to frame it as an anti-gun show. ("I've never been one to take on controversial issues," he said at the time. "I'm a singer.")
But on Tuesday, Currington stood tall for the victims in Orlando, rousing a huge ovation through bouncy, feel-good hits like Don't It, That's How Country Boys Roll and Good Directions.
"We're very thankful to be part of the healing process," Currington said. "That's all I really know to say."
And that was fine. For the city of Orlando, his actions spoke plenty.
-- Jay Cridlin