For country music star Randy Travis, the stories proved too touching to ignore. Friends involved in Operation Smile USAan organization that provides reconstructive surgery to impoverished children with facial deformitiestold him about the many families who suffered because they couldn’t afford the surgery required to provide their kids a chance to smileand to enjoy a normal life. “There are a lot of doctors and nurses who volunteer to fix these kids’ faces for nothing,” Travis says. “That’s a pretty wonderful thing to do. But the organization doesn’t have the money to get them together with the kids. It seemed like a really worthwhile cause.”
Record producer Tony Brown, president of MCA Nashville, concurred. “I knew about the organization from a news story I’d seen on TV,” he says. “But when I saw a video and got to see what they do for these kids, well, it’ll make you cry. It’s like, ‘How can you not do that?’ ”
The result is one of the most star-studded benefits in years. Even in an entertainment town known for its generous involvement with fundraisers and benefit concerts, the Operation Smile concert features a remarkable lineup. The list of scheduled performers draws from several fields and reaches far beyond Nashville borders: Besides such country heavyweights as Travis, Wynonna, Vince Gill, Trisha Yearwood, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, the concert will also feature new Nashville residents Donna Summer, Michael McDonald and Christopher Cross, frequent Music City visitor Liza Minnelli (in a rare performance), and TV and recording veteran Della Reese. Others slated to sing include Joe Diffie, Shelby Lynne, Skip Ewing, The Mavericks, Tracy Lawrence and Daryle Singletary. The concert will also feature film clips illustrating Operation Smile’s work.
Travis agreed to take part more than a year ago. “They booked a date for the show before we had any acts, other than me,” he says. “We kind of panicked, because we didn’t know how many people might be available on that date. But once we started contacting people and explaining to them what it was about, we were amazed at how many people were nice enough to help us out.”
As Brown points out, country stars get bombarded with requests to help out with fundraisers and benefits. But, across the board, he says, the performers responded enthusiastically once he explained the organization’s mission. “These people are asked to do so much all the time,” he says. “But no one who had that date available said no. That’s really incredible.”
Travis recruited Reese, who will cohost the event with him, after appearing with her last year on an episode of the network TV series Touched By an Angel. “She’ll introduce the clips and entertain during the set changes,” Travis explains. “She’s a hilarious lady.”
Brown was responsible for enlisting Summer, McDonald and Minnelli, the last of whom is probably the most surprising name on the lineup. Minnelli had visited Nashville in recent years accompanying her boyfriend, Billy Stritch, who cowrote Reba McEntire’s duet hit “Does He Love You?” with Nashville resident Sandy Knox. “Out of the blue one day it occurred to me to that I should ask [Minnelli] to do it,” Brown says. “I called Sandy Knox and asked her if she could get in touch with Billy and Liza. She said, ‘Well, she’s down at Emerald [Studio] right now.” Emerald is down the block from MCA’s headquarters. “I thought, ‘It’s destiny,’ ” Brown says with a laugh. Minnelli quickly agreed to appear.
The concert will open with a 30-minute performance by Travis. Then a house band will set up to back the other stars, most of whom will perform one or two songs apiece. A few will perform acoustically, while others are bringing along a band member or two to augment the house band.
For Travis, the appearance will be his first in Nashville since taking a lengthy vacation from the music business. “I’d never really rested much at all in the previous eight years, so I thought it would be good for me to stop for a while,” he says. “I don’t think I sang at all for about a year there. Now that I’m back out, my voice seems a lot better to me. I think it was real good for me to do.”
The Operation Smile benefit concert takes place Nov. 7 at the Grand Ole Opry House.
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