Beyond its support of the U.S. military, it's hard to find a cause that country music is more connected to than St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn.
It's a relationship that Alabama's Randy Owen started when he launched the capital campaign, Country Cares for St. Jude Kids. Since its 1989 inception, the initiative has raised more than more than $750 million to support the life-saving research and care at the Memphis facility. The Country Cares campaign started following a call to action from Danny Thomas, who founded the hospital in 1962.
On Jan. 11-13, representatives from more than 200 radio stations gathered at Memphis' Peabody Hotel for the 2018 Country Cares seminar to learn more about hosting successful fundraising events to support the hospital.
The weekend program included panel discussions on radiothons, a Q&A with former St. Jude patient and offensive tackle for the Cleveland Browns, Shon Coleman, and private tours of the facility where several rising artists met with patients for games and pictures.
The event wrapped with a private acoustic concert by Owen and surprise guest Brad Paisley, who was awarded the Randy Owen Angels Among Us Award for his continued support of the hospital.
Paisley has been a St. Jude advocate since 2011 and has donated a family gathering room to the St. Jude Target House, the hospital's long-term housing facility for families staying more than 90 days. Thanks to generous donors, families who stay at the St. Jude Target House do so for free.
"Country music has been doing this for 29 years," says Rick Shadyac Jr., President and CEO of ALSAC, the fundraising organization for St. Jude. "Country music, its fans and country music artists, they have a heart and you can hear it and you can feel it in their songs. I think that's the connection between our mission and the country music industry.
"The people that I get to meet from the artists to the personalities, everybody seems to really care. I don't think there's an industry that has had a more profound effect on a cause or a mission than the country music industry has had on the eradication of pediatric cancer."
There is a big reason to care. Cancer remains the leading cause of death by disease among kids in the U.S. On average, 8,500 active patients visit the hospital each year, most of whom are treated on an outpatient basis and that care continues into adulthood.
Patients are referred by a physician, and generally have a disease currently under study and are eligible for a current clinical trial. Other debilitating diseases being researched at St. Jude include sickle cell anemia and other disorders.
In the last year, St. Jude pharmacists processed an average of 3,349 chemotherapy orders each month. And although the daily operating cost for St. Jude is $2.4 million, those treated at the facility never receive a bill for their care.
But of all the artists who visited St. Jude during the seminar, Ashton was the lone performer who could relate to patients the most. In early 2014, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, and her disease is now in remission.
"Most people don't know," Ashton told media gathered at the hospital. "I had to tell my radio team when we got here. And I've just been whispering to the kids who are going through cancer treatment, 'Hey, we both have superpowers. What superhero are you?'
"I can't imagine being eight and [going through] it. It's hard enough to understand when you were my age, but when you're their age, you really don't get it. I feel so grateful that I was older. I see how happy they are, and it's not bothering them. I wish I could have held their hand while I did it. It's so inspiring."
In fall 2017, St. Jude launched the "This Shirt Saves Lives" t-shirt campaign, which has raised nearly $1 million so far for the hospital. The shirt is available with the commitment of a monthly donation through the St. Jude website.