GREAT ESCAPE

Country stars chill out in the scenic, snow-capped Rocky Mountains for six days of winter fun and fundraising

There are always hilarious and heart-tugging happenings each January at Country In The Rockies, an extraordinary event where country stars come together to aid cancer research. But some simple questions reveal why this year's extravaganza in Crested Butte, Color., was the most unique ever.

  • What was the real reason Brooks & Dunn's Ronnie Dunn went dog-sledding?

  • How did Lonestar turn snowmobiling into a demolition derby?

  • Why did Trick Pony's Ira Dean cut his hair for $25,000?

  • Why was Jo Dee Messina mastering the art of falling down?

  • What was newcomer Anthony Smith doing with a car-size block of ice on a 10,150-foot-high slope?

Even more memories were created by the event's other stars, including Andy Griggs, BlackHawk, Suzy Bogguss, Lari White, Billy Dean, Deborah Allen, Trick Pony's Keith Burns, Sherrie Austin, Robert Earl Keen, Mandy Barnett, Gary Morris and Gary Chapman. And there were remarkable performances by some of the planet's best songwriters, including Aaron Barker, Dean Dillon, Marv Green, Chris Lindsey, Aimee Mayo, Chuck Cannon, Will Robinson, Doug Crider, Will Rambeaux and Matt Morris.

"Country In The Rockies is a great way to get folks together for a great cause," declares Kix Brooks. "Cancer touches just about everyone. My mother and father both have it.

"It's easy to find people who've been touched in a bad way by cancer," he continues. "But these days there are so many success stories where someone's in remission or they're clean of the disease. A cure is just around the corner."

With a celebrity ski race, two star-packed concerts, a celebrity bartending night and a pair of auctions, the stars and other supporters did their parts to support that cause. In six days at Crested Butte's Club Med village, they raised an amazing $1.3 million for the T.J. Martell Foundation's Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at Nashville's Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center.

"Putting an end to those terrible diseases is our primary goal," sums up Lonestar frontman Richie McDonald. "But along the way, everyone's having a blast tackling winter sports."

Ronnie Dunn admits he went dog-sledding because of the Iditarod, the world-famous Alaskan dog-sledding race. No, he isn't in training for the race – but his youngest daughter, Haley, just may be.

"We went dog-sledding," explains Ronnie, "and the kids loved it. The youngest studied dog-sledding in school. She talks about the Iditarod and sled dogs all the time."

And what does partner Kix, an avid skier like Ronnie, say about his pal's dog-sledding trek? "Ronnie was the lead dog," he deadpans.

Ronnie smiles. He's used to Kix's one-liners.

"And I had a great time snowmobiling," adds Ronnie. "But we did have one of our group turn his snowmobile over." And before he can be asked if he was the guilty party, he volunteers, "No, it wasn't me."

On another snowmobile adventure, Lonestar keyboardist Dean Sams was the guilty party. When asked who's the most dangerous snowmobiler, Richie, Michael Britt, and Keech Rainwater announce in unison: "Dean!"

"The guide told us when he holds his fist in the air, get ready to stop," protests Dean. "We were streaking along and he held his fist in the air, so I did, too. When I looked behind to see if the next person saw me, the guide stopped – and I ran into his snowmobile!"

"Blah, blah, blah," goads Richie. "When we did the Richard Petty Driving Experience, Dean was told to stay a good distance behind the instructor's car. But, no – Dean hung right on his bumper and the guy kept telling him to back off. There's a pattern here."

Mandy Barnett also had some tailgating issues. "I got behind a couple of slow snowmobiles," she notes, "so I kept goosing it.

"But I didn't mind the pace of fly-fishing," she adds. "It was my first time and I had a great teacher – fly-fishing guru Gary Morris. And I caught a nice rainbow trout, which was exciting."

Gary knows fishing. He owns Mountain Spirit Lodge hunting and fishing retreat near Pagosa Springs, Colo.

"Every year I come to Crested Butte," he explains, "and Rod Cesario at Dragonfly Anglers helps me land many 10-pound or better trout. I had one on yesterday for 20 minutes, but I lost it."

Sherrie Austin admits she's found the easiest way to enjoy the Rockies.

"I sat inside the dog sled and took it easy," she confesses, "while about 20 dogs took me along the base of one of Colorado's beautiful snow-covered mountains.

"Then I went horseback riding. The colors all around me, set against the white snow, were so vibrant. And everything seems so huge here. Even the sky seems bigger. And, as with the dogs, my horse did all the work."

Sherrie and the other stars do work hard during the Celebrity Bartending Night at four local taverns.

Singing for donations, they raised over $230,000!

When early-on donations reach $800 at the Talk of the Town, Trick Pony's Keith and Ira sing the trio's smash, "Just What I Do." (The trio's lead vocalist Heidi Newfield, was in Nashville recuperating from vocal chord surgery.)

Someone offers a mind-boggling $25,000 donation if Ira will cut his long hair, with the snips earmarked to create a wig for a young cancer patient whose own hair has been lost to chemotherapy. "It's just too good a cause and too much money to pass up," proclaims Ira before Jo Dee Messina clips off four inches of his blond locks.

A day later Ira is on the slopes when he takes a tumble. "I was going too fast coming down on my snowboard," he confesses. "I caught the edge of the board and fell on my head and left shoulder, separating the shoulder. It was just hanging there, so I popped it back in. The rotator cuff's torn. But I'll be back on the slopes soon."

"It's a painful injury," adds Keith. "I've had two of 'em." But those injuries aren't slowing Keith down as he qualifies for the Celebrity Ski Race.

"Skiing here is incredible," notes Dean Sams. "Guys like Andy Griggs, Dean Dillon – a great songwriter – and Keith are super-competitive. Earlier today, we all took on a big hill. Keith, Dean and Andy made it fine – but I slid on my tail at least one hundred yards. I now have a snowsuit wedgie!"

Just after qualifying for the race, Texas troubadour Robert Earl Keen reveals, "I came to this event four years ago. I'd never skied before, so I took lessons. This year has been the most fun of all."

Jo Dee's having fun, too, but she's paying the price.

"I took snowboarding lessons for the first time today, and I fell a lot," laughs the talented redhead. "My body's so bruised it looks like I've been thrown down a flight of stairs!"

In the second concert, Jo Dee showcases songs from her upcoming album, Delicious Surprise, set to be out my May. The CD's debut single, "Was That My Life," is already headed up the charts.

Sitting by a campfire, Andy Griggs prioritizes. "The two biggest things at Country In The Rockies," he says, "are your guitar and your skis. At night, you play songs. I've played songs I've just written and old songs I love, including Hank Sr. tunes. And during the day, you ski." He chuckles. "I hope I'm better at my guitar than I am at skiing!"

After downing his own breakfast creation – a bowl brimming with low-fat granola, milk and Capt'n Crunch – Andy spends the afternoon on the slopes conquering moguls. "Skiing gives me the things I love about hunting," he explains, "and that's inspiring scenery and peacefulness. Man, you can't look at the Rocky Mountains and think there's no God."

As the sun begins to set, Anthony Smith, whose new single is "Half A Man," hops a snowmobile to Mount Crested Butte's famous Ice Bar. The establishment – carved out of a massive, multi-ton chunk of ice – is a breathtakingly scenic location to down a favorite beverage.

"I could hang out here all the time," beams Anthony, leaning on the crystalline ice as he sops a martini.

Throughout the six days, singer/songwriter Deborah Allen has a ball serving as on-air host for GAC's Country In The Rockies coverage.

"I saw you out in snow in your high-heel shoes," jokes Kix Brooks while Deborah is interviewing him. "You won't give fashion up for nothing, will you? Heck, I was trackin' you in the snow, trying to figure out what kind of animal created a small hole in back and a bigger pad area in front!"

"High heels work great in the snow," laughs Deborah. "They dig in and work sort of like snowshoes in reverse."

Track that, Kix!

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