COUNTRY IN THE ROCKIES 2005

Country stars frolic in the snow and sing their hearts out for charity.

There are a lot more believers now. Big & Rich, Gretchen Wilson and their MuzikMafia clan rolled into Crested Butte, Colo., in early February and took Country in the Rockies by storm. While they were at the annual cancer research fundraiser, they played great music, laughed, cried and kept alive the memory of their friend who passed away in 2003. And when the MuzikMafia came down from the mountain where CITR is held each year, a lot of people knew two things: more money had been raised to battle cancer, and Big & Rich- Big Kenny and John Rich, the musical group's godfathers-really mean their "Love Everybody" motto.

"The MuzikMafia is here in a big way," declares Big Kenny just after arriving at Club Med Crested Butte. "We brought Cowboy Troy, James Otto, Jon Nicholson and Rachel Kice with us," adds John. "The core of the Mafia is here."

True, 'bout the only one of the regular gang that's missing is Two-Foot Fred, the singing, dancing dwarf.

The members of the MuzikMafia-a collection of kindred spirits who came together at Nashville's Pub of Love in 1998-are a great addition to the artists and songwriters at the 11th annual CITR. They join singer/songwriters Jamie O'Neal, Charlie Daniels, Kenny Loggins (yep, of "Footloose" fame), Deborah Allen, Suzy Bogguss, Scotty Emerick, Kathy Mattea, Gary Morris, Robert Earl Keen, Paul Overstreet, Lari White, Jeffrey Steele, Dean Dillon, Frank Myers, Aaron Barker, Chuck Cannon, Doug Johnson, Bob DiPiero, Gary Chapman, Leslie Satcher, Casey Beathard, Jon Vezner, Doug Crider and Crosby Loggins.

"Anytime I'm asked to do anything to fight cancer, I'm there," explains Jamie O'Neal. "My grandfather died of stomach cancer and my aunt died of colon cancer."

All proceeds raised at CITR- through the winter sports, sponsorships, concerts, live and silent auctions, and celebrity bartending-benefit the T.J. Martell Foundation's leukemia, cancer and AIDS research through the Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at Nashville's Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

Relaxing on Club Med's outdoor deck next to a roaring fire-with Mount Crested Butte jutting more than 12,000 feet into a postcard-blue sky-Charlie's cellphone rings. His classic "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" is the phone's ring tone!

After chatting on the phone, Charlie notes, "I came up from my winter cabin in Durango, Colorado, which is only 260 miles. But if you pushed those mountain roads down flat it'd probably be 700 miles!"

Jamie O'Neal, in full ski gear, walks by, carrying her 20- month-old daughter, Aliyah. "This is the first time I've skied in four years," explains Jamie. "And it'll be Aliyah's first time in the snow." Snow bunny Jamie admits she's on the brink of a major climate shift. From frigid Crested Butte, she's heading to the Bahamas' Atlantis Resort to meet contest winners. (Get the tie-in with her hit "Trying to Find Atlantis"?) Then she reveals her next single.

"It's 'Somebody's Hero,' set for a mid- April release. I co-wrote it about mothers and daughters, and how life really comes full circle."

On a nearby pool table Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen's 10-year-old daughter, Clara, shows him how the colorful balls and him on the table will make a great photo. As she arranges everything, Robert talks about his new CD, What I Really Mean, set for release May 10. "It's primarily a country record, or as country as people consider me to get," he explains. "Ray Price even sang on a tune called 'A Border Tragedy.' "

At dinner, a video diary kept by Linda Martin about her husband Kevin's ongoing battle with colon cancer tugs at the heart. Both Kevin and Linda address the audience. Check out their CITR trip at caringbridge.org/tn/kevinmartin.

Later, at the Club Med theater, Charlie wows the crowd with his hits, including "Long Haired Country Boy," before Kenny Loggins takes the stage. While talking about the song he wrote with Clint Black (it's on Kenny's It's About Time CD), Kenny tells the audience, "When we were in the studio recording it, every time I'd sing the vocals in a way I thought was me, Clint would say, 'Sing it more country.' So I kept singing it until we got this. . . ." Then he launches into "Alive 'N Kickin', " before moving on to his cherished "Return to Pooh Corner."

After a day of skiing, snowboarding, horseback riding, snowmobiling and dog sledding, the singer/songwriters ride buses down to the picturesque village of Crested Butte to entertain at the Celebrity Bartending fund-raiser. Four bars are jammed with people, as the performers hawk songs for cash. Robert Earl Keen gets $2,000 to sing Bob Dylan's "Tangled Up in Blue." In just two hours, more than $200,000 is raised!

Back at Club Med, Soul Incision, a rockin' band comprised of Vanderbilt University Medical Center doctors, nurses, computer engineers and execs, do their musical thing into the wee hours. The '60s, '70s and '80s live again!

As the morning Colorado sun coats the mountainside with gold, Deborah Allen lounges in red silk pajamas on a big brass bed-out in the snow with skiers zipping right by her! But there is method to Deborah's ten-degrees-below-freezing madness- she's having fun, while drawing attention to her upcoming tour. "I've done the PaJAMa Party tour for four years, with different female performers," notes Deborah. "This year I'll hit the road April 14 with Tammy Cochran and Anita Cochran. They're not related, but I'm already calling them the Cochran Sisters."

Inside Club Med, the elevator doors open- and there, waiting to enter, stands Big & Rich's Kenny and his new bride, wardrobe stylist/graphic artist Christiev Carothers. (They married Jan. 23.) "This is Larry Holden," Kenny tells Christiev. "He's a big-time magazine guy, big-time writer." When I point out to Kenny that he just used big-time twice and that the duo's next single is "Big Time," he roars with laughter.

Kenny, John and Gretchen are at CITR because they asked their tour sponsor, Chevrolet, to help them honor the memory of their friend, Katie Darnell, the 19-year-old who died of brain cancer in 2003. Kenny and John first met Katie in 2000 at Vanderbilt Children's Hospital in Nashville. When they walked into her room, she sang "Rescue Me," a song she'd written. Touched by the tune, John recorded it as a gift to Katie.

After DJ Gerry House played the song on Nashville's WSIX radio, it spread across the country. And soon John and Katie were on national TV; she even sang her song at the White House for President Bush. John put the song on his RCA album, which was never released because the label dropped him. But Katie's song kept going when Wynonna Judd put it on her What the World Needs Now Is Love CD. "Katie is here with us at Country in the Rockies," boasts John during sound check. "She's bigger than ever-and her story and 'Rescue Me' is going to a whole new level this year. We plan on recording it on the next Big & Rich album, and there's talk about doing a movie about Katie."

Kenny smiles. "What's cool is that Chevrolet, a big Country in the Rockies sponsor this year, made their donation in Katie's name," he reveals. "And Chevy gave a new Z06 Corvette to be auctioned and they're doing something special with a new Silverado pickup." An hour later, Kenny, John and Gretchen are standing beside that Silverado parked in the snow, as Katie's parents, Don and Margaret Darnell, are surprised with the keys to the truck. With John and Kenny leading everyone in cheering and clapping, Katie's mom tells Kenny and John, "She loved ya'll."

Gretchen then watches her beautiful 4-yearold daughter, Grace, and Grace's dad, club owner Mike Penner, rocket down a snowy slope in an innertube. Grace-laughing and squealing-stops near Gretchen, declaring, "Now you get to go with me, Mommy!" Gretchen grabs her hand and, tugging the innertube behind them, they go to the top of the slope-and laugh, and scream, all the way down! GAC host Storme Warren catches the tube action for his Country Music Across America show.

At the theater, MuzikMafia's resident artist, Rachel Kice, puts a canvas on an easel. "I'm onstage painting something that represents what's going on during the concert," she explains. Check out Rachel's amazing work at rachelkice.com.

When the curtain goes up on the Big & Rich/Gretchen Wilson/MuzikMafia concert, it's clear it's more of a "happening" than a show. Big Kenny and John Rich knock out the tunes that have country music buzzing, including "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)." Gretchen lets go with "Here for the Party," James rocks out and Jon eases into his soulful R&B style. There's 6-foot-5- inch Cowboy Troy rappin' with his "hick-hop" music. Rachel covers her canvas with colors and shapes. Singer/songwriter Gary Chapman, producer of the CMT's hit MuzikMafia series, roams the stage shooting footage for another episode. Videos are projected onto a screen- one is about courageous Katie Darnell. At one point, Kenny turns into an auctioneer, selling the Corvette Z06 for $115,000! And at the end of the show-during a standing ovation-John points to heaven, declaring, "To Katie!"

The next day is Celebrity Race day. The team led by hit songwriter Chuck Cannon takes first place. And the Dunkin' Donuts-sponsored Cocoa for the Cure is also a winner. The fund-raiser, where kids sell hot chocolate and bags of coffee (started four years ago by Suzy Bogguss' son, Ben), took in a whopping $32,000, thanks to a Dunkin' Donuts match.

At the night's concert, where award-winning songwriter Casey Beathard sings his hits, including Trace Adkins' "Hot Mama," the painting Rachel created during the CITR MuzikMafia concert is auctioned for $9,500. Then Kathy Mattea brings down the house with her hits "Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses" and "455 Rocket." Jamie O'Neal closes out the concert with her debut No. 1, "There Is No Arizona," and songs from her just-released CD, Brave.

Not long before Gretchen boards a plane to take her from CITR to her Super Bowl halftime show with Charlie Daniels, she proves you can take the girl out of the country, but not the country out of the girl. When asked the best thing that could happen to her in the near future, she doesn't mention winning a Grammy (which she did a week later) or selling another three million records. Without hesitation, she confides, "The best thing would be for my pregnant mare at home to give birth to a healthy colt."

Now that's country. And that's humble. It's the perfect combination for Country in the Rockies.

- LARRY HOLDEN

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