The Future of Country Cares: Randy Owen + the Artists Who Will Carry on His St. Jude Legacy
"When I first came here and did Country Cares last year, I told [the people who work at St. Jude], 'You guys have my voice for life. Whatever that means for you, whatever you guys need, just know that it's there,'" says Stephanie Quayle, echoing the sentiments of many of the country artists who have participated in the annual Country Cares Seminar in January and left inspired to keep supporting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in the future.
To The Boot and other media members, Quayle explained that she is particularly excited by the potential that social media and modern technology have to invigorate fundraising for the St. Jude mission: "Growing up in Montana, St. Jude in Memphis seemed really far away," she admits. "With social media, we can make it all right at everyone's fingertips ... and I'm a chatty human, so it's easy for me to share stories about St. Jude, because I believe in what they're doing."
Other artists, such as LoCash, have literal, physical plans for how they hope to impact St. Jude in the future: "We wanna build an "I Love This Life" Lookout Tower up here. And a LoCash Lab," the group gushes. "We were actually talking about it in the hallway, like, 'We've gotta raise more money. We've got to raise so much that we start building more wings and things like that' ... Everything and anything is possible, especially where everyone is wide open with ideas."
But perhaps no one is more ambitious or excited about the future of the Country Cares for St. Jude Kids program than Randy Owen, who, 30 years ago, founded the initiative, which has raised more than $800 million.
"I'd like to see it at least $800 million past what we did [in 30 more years]," says the Alabama frontman. Like Quayle, Owen thinks that the advent of social media has the potential to revolutionize fundraising in the future, especially in the hands of the artists who grew up using it: "These younger kids can do it better than we did, basically because of social media," he explains.
"I think they can do an even more incredible job [than my generation of artists] because of that," Owen continues. "I'm looking forward to that. I won't be here, but I'll be looking down. I think there are great possibilities, if they keep their hearts right ... and care -- really care -- about that little kid that's one of our patients, and that family, and those grandparents and sisters and brothers that are left back home."
"Everything and anything is possible, especially where everyone is wide open with ideas." - LoCash
Owen knows he won't always be around to helm Country Cares. He knows that other artists will eventually need to step into his role as the program's leader, and he also knows, better than anyone, what a big ask it is of an artist to assume that responsibility.
"I hate to brag -- I'm not bragging -- but as somebody who dedicated what I did, for years and years, when I was relevant on country radio -- I don't think I would ask anybody to do that," Owen admits. "That's just a huge undertaking. Being willing to sacrifice a No. 1 record because the radio station across town didn't do Country Cares, I was willing to do that. I don't know how many No. 1 records it cost the group Alabama, but there were a few.
"And I'm not sad about that," he adds. "You have to be willing to go with your heart and do what you think is the right thing to do, which is helping the kids at St. Jude."
The solution, most likely, says Owen, would be to divide up the work of spearheading Country Cares between multiple artists, at least as a temporary solution. "I would like to see the person go a year at a time, until there could be some magic," he says. "When the magic shows up, it might be a permanent thing."
30 Years of Country Cares: See the Stars With St. Jude Patients Now + Then
In the meantime, there is no shortage of country stars stepping up to help Owen carry the mantle. At the closing-night Songwriter's Dinner during the 2019 Country Cares Seminar, Owen presented country star Jake Owen -- "No, he's not my son," the Alabama frontman joked onstage -- with the Angels Among Us Award in recognition of his many charitable contributions to the hospital.
The younger singer explained onstage that the accolade was "probably the sweetest award I've ever been giving," going on to share how much Owen and the Country Cares program has meant to him over the years. Following the ceremony, he added that, as someone with a platform, he sees giving back as a personal responsibility.
"I feel like that's our duty as a country music entertainer," Owen reflects. "It's not just singing songs for people and entertaining. It's what we do with the platform that we've so luckily been given. I say 'given' -- we've worked for the platform. But I think there's more to what we do than just singing songs."
"You have to be willing to go with your heart and do what you think is the right thing to do, which is helping the kids at St. Jude." - Randy Owen
Many of the other artists at St. Jude in Memphis that weekend concurred with Jake Owen's resolve to use their platform in support of the cause. A few even expressed that they'd be willing to be the successor to Randy Owen's legacy.
"God, I would love to be. I feel totally unqualified in so many ways," Hunter Hayes says. "I would wave the flag for this place anywhere and everywhere that I possibly could ...
"I've always felt that if you have a microphone and an audience, you have a responsibility to do something good with it," he adds. "And I feel like this place is one of those really important things that, yeah, I do want it to be a part of my story, and I want to be able to help in any way I can."
Despite the massive advances in cancer care and research that have taken place at St. Jude in the past 30 years -- many of them thanks to funds raised by Country Cares -- there is still much work to be done. The hospital treats about 8,500 children every year, and no family ever receives a bill for care, travel, housing or food.
The average treatment for pediatric cancer costs approximately $425,000, and that's just the beginning: St. Jude undertakes pioneering research projects, such as the St. Jude Pediatric Cancer Genome Project, that can cost into the millions, and the hospital constantly contracts new facilities to provide housing, dining areas, an onsite school for children to attend while undergoing treatment and many other important aspects of patient care. It costs more than $1 billion annually to operate St. Jude.
"I've always felt that if you have a microphone and an audience, you have a responsibility to do something good with it. And I feel like this place is one of those really important things that ... I want to be able to help in any way I can." - Hunter Hayes
"Back in October, when I was here for the LIFE Study program, I was in the hospital," recalls Eliza, a former St. Jude patient who is now in her mid-20s and works for the organization. "I'm the oldest there by far, so there's little biddies running around, and we're all identified by our patient number.
"My patient number is 12708, which is regulated to how many patients have come through the hospital. So, when I was in treatment, I was the 12,708th patient," she explains. "I was sitting in the lobby waiting for my appointment, and I heard the number 51204. And I was like, 'That is just so surreal.' I'm a person that has gone through this whole journey, start to finish and continuing on, and there's this little patient here that's just starting hers."
The thought of Patient 51204 stuck with Leatherman.
"We're not here for me. I'm doing great," she says. "We're doing what we're doing today because of 51204, and 51205, and continuing on."
On Feb. 7-8, more than a dozen country radio stations owned by Townsquare Media, The Boot's parent company, will hold their 2019 Country Cares radiothons to raise money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. In the past five years, these stations have raised more than $7 million, and even more money has come from additional TSM stations that hold radiothons later in the year. To join the fight against childhood cancer and become a Partner in Hope, visit St. Jude's official website.
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