Chris Janson Transforms Ryman Auditorium Into Honky Tonk Revival At Concert For Cumberland Heights

Launched in 1996, the annual event has raised over $3.5 million.

By

Nicole Palsa

| Posted on

August 21, 2023

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Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

Chris Janson headlined the 25th Annual Concert for Cumberland Heights on Wednesday, August 16, 2023, at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, TN, along with opener Charles Esten and surprise guest Julia Cole. Since 1996, the Concert for Cumberland Heights has raised more than $3.5 million for the nonprofit addiction treatment center through the John Hiatt Fund. Previous performers at the annual event include Trisha Yearwood, Josh Turner, Kenny Rogers, and more. 

Outer Banks star and singer-songwriter Charles Esten, also known for his role as Deacon Claybourne on the TV show Nashville, kicked off the night with a lively acoustic set showcasing his versatile talents. Esten shared that performing at the Ryman Auditorium was nostalgic, as it was the last venue where he performed while filming Nashville. From playing guitar and harmonica to playing the piano, Esten’s musical talents complemented his strengths as an entertainer, keeping the crowd wanting more.

Charles Esten; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Charles Esten; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Charles Esten; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Charles Esten; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

Highlights from his set included his original song “Candlelight,” which he wrote with Eric Pasley and Kenny Alphin of Big and Rich. Recognizing the purpose of the evening to raise awareness and funds for an addiction treatment facility, Esten apologized in advance for his light-hearted song, “I Still Do,” which jokes about a past of smoking and drinking that didn’t actually end. Transitioning from guitar to piano and a more mellow mood, Esten delivered a poignant tune about the weight of carrying burdens, called “Maybe I’m Alright.”

Julia Cole, Charles Esten; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Julia Cole, Charles Esten; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

Esten then brought out country newcomer Julia Cole as a surprise guest for her very first performance on the historic Ryman stage. The pair sang their duet “Worst Day” to an adoring crowd. To close out his set, Esten performed the aptly named “Down the Road,” even including an a cappella moment that showcased his strong, emotive vocals. Many of the songs Esten performed will appear on his debut album Love Ain’t Pretty, which is set to be released on January 26, 2024.

Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

As the rowdy intro music for Chris Janson played before he took the stage, it was clear that he intended this benefit concert to be like his raucous headlining shows across the country. Before the crowd could even see him, he addressed the audience and told everyone he wouldn’t come out until they were on their feet. 

Janson kicked off his 90-minute set with “Redneck Life,” setting the tone for the rest of the night. From the moment he took the stage, Janson held the audience in the palm of his hand. The harmonica virtuoso pranced around the stage with his playful energy throughout the night, delivering songs from his latest album Outlaw Side of Me along with his catalog of hits from throughout his career. 

Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

Janson paused during the show to recognize veterans in the crowd, thanking them for their service before launching into his hit “Fix a Drink” and a cover of Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down.”

He continuously checked the crowd’s energy throughout the night, asking them for a smile and thumbs up, which fans eagerly obliged. “Throw your hands up like you’re in church!” he exclaimed. “By the way, you are in church!” he added, referencing the Ryman’s nickname as the “Mother Church of Country Music.”

Janson took the opportunity to then speak a blessing over the crowd. “You’re a beautiful child of God and you better believe that’s true,” he proclaimed before performing his upbeat hit “Good Vibes.”

Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

Standing on the historic Ryman stage, Janson became emotional as he recalled the career-defining moment when Keith Urban invited him to become a member of the Grand Ole Opry. To celebrate that memory, he performed the classic hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Later, he brought out a special Opry mic stand and delivered an ode to traditional country music with Mel McDaniel’s “Louisiana Saturday Night,” Alabama’s “Mountain Music” and Merle Haggard’s “Footlights.”

One of the most explosive moments of the night was Janson’s version of LoCash’s “I Love This Life,” which Janson co-wrote. He even brought his kids on stage to soak in the electric energy of the party crowd.

While performing his latest radio single “All I Need is You,” Janson brought his wife Kelly on stage, praising her beauty. Janson wrote the lead single from The Outlaw Side of Me along with Ashley Gorley, Mitch Oglesby, and Brad Clawson. The group wrote the tune over the phone during the pandemic while Janson was living at a beach house on 30A, which helped inspire the song. “We were just sort of stuck there and we weren’t touring or anything, and that’s a good place to be stuck, you know?” he told Country Now. Janson used the time to write songs, including the autobiographical single. “We started writing and everybody kept throwing their inputs in and it was really just written from true life. I mean, ‘I wanna take a trip in the Chevrolet to a beach house down on 30A.’ I mean, literally we had just driven a suburban to the beach and that’s where we were. And Kelly was in the house. I never forget where I was sitting, I was sitting on the back porch and I just caught a glimpse of her inside and, you know, she’s easy to write about ‘cause she’s my wife and I love her. So I figure, hey, this is a great love song. Let’s make it true to life.” Janson says he’s wanted to record the tune ever since they wrote it, which has now led to it becoming his fastest-rising single to date. 

Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

Dialing down the energy a notch, Janson took to the piano for his sobering hit “Take a Drunk Girl Home.” He then recalled performing in the honky tonks of Broadway which neighbor the Ryman Auditorium, reflecting on his gratitude for his stellar career before performing “21 Again,” which he recorded with Dolly Parton and Slash of Guns N’ Roses. 

Refocusing on his family, Janson brought out his youngest son, nine-year-old Jesse to join him on “The Reel Bass Pro.” Jesse clearly has entertainment in his DNA, as he effortlessly jumped around the stage, singing proudly with his dad and receiving an enthusiastic response from the crowd.

Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights
Chris Janson; Photo by Jason Davis for Cumberland Heights

To close out the night, Charles Esten joined Chris Janson for a rowdy singalong of the massive hit “Buy Me a Boat.” Janson’s infectious optimism and energy was the perfect vibe to pair with the Concert for Cumberland Heights, which serves as a beacon of hope and inspiration for adolescents and young adults seeking treatment for addiction, guiding them on the path to recovery. To learn more about Cumberland Heights, visit https://www.cumberlandheights.org/

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Nicole Palsa

Written by

Nicole Palsa

Nicole Palsa is a freelance writer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Since 2012, she has written about the newcomers, superstars, and legends of country music for publications including Music Mayhem, Country Now, and Country Music Tattle Tale. Palsa has served as a volunteer guide with Musicians On Call since 2016 and is a Troubadour member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. She graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University, where she earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Mass Communications and her Bachelor of Arts degree in French. In addition to being a devoted country music fan, Nicole is a family historian and genealogist who can often be found in stacks of research. She is also an avid traveler with a passion for wildlife and nature photography.