The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research hosted its first-ever “A Country Thing Happened On The Way to Cure Parkinson’s” on Wednesday, April 26 at Belmont University’s Fisher Center for the Performing Arts in Nashville, Tenn. The star-studded evening of country music and comedy featured performances from Brad Paisley, Little Big Town, Caitlyn Smith, and comedian Nate Bargatze.
Michael J. Fox spoke to Country Now about his relationship with Brad Paisley, the groundbreaking Parkinson’s research discovery recently announced, and what fans can expect from the upcoming movie about his life. Fox admits he was a rock and roll guy, but that “country has become rock and roll.” He also shared his deep-rooted love and admiration of Paisley. “I’m a big guitar fan, so Brad Paisley’s a hero of mine on many levels, but he’s an amazing guitarist. I’ll walk across the glass, literal pavement to hear him play.”
Earlier this month, the Foundation announced that scientists had discovered a Parkinson’s Disease biomarker, which opens a new chapter for research with the promise of a future where every person living with Parkinson’s can expect improved care and treatments, while newly diagnosed individuals may never advance to full-blown symptoms.
Fox shared his reaction to the news, saying he was “gratified, thrilled, happy for people in the community with the disease.”
He continued, “I’m so grateful to the patient community, who stepped up in a lot of ways. We’ve always said, if anyone has the answer, we have the answer, the patients have the answer. We should make ourselves available to researchers and be present for the breakthrough. And it’s happened now.”
On May 12, STILL: A Michael J. Fox Movie will debut on AppleTV+, which incorporates documentary, archival and scripted elements, recounting Fox’s extraordinary story in his own words. When we asked what he hopes fans will take away from the film, he joked, “the theater seats, the popcorn machine, just take it all!”
On a more serious note, Fox shared his hopes for the impact of the movie. “I hope that they walk away and realize that these aren’t sad stories, isn’t it tragic stuff. This is just life. We take it on and we deal with it. And they get from me that I see a challenge, that it’s a challenge to beat and not a challenge to be defeated by.”
Brad Paisley reciprocated Fox’s feelings, telling Country Now, “It’s been fun to get to know Michael, but what an inspiring human being. I’ve never seen anybody take lemons and make lemonade better than he has. He may cure this. He may be single-handedly responsible when they cure this. I think you’ll be able to point to the fact that he was diagnosed with this and we can thank him for saving lives.”
Paisley’s late mother-in-law Linda Williams previously worked for the Michael J. Fox Foundation and he started playing events for the foundation about five years ago, although his admiration of Fox goes back even further. “I’ve been a fan of Michael since way back when, since I bought my first skateboard and tried to talk my dad into buying a Delorean,” he laughed.
Paisley has been working on new music, which he says is a reflection of his mountain upbringing and perspective on life. “I’ve tried to be very true to who I grew up being. I’m from West Virginia and there’s a real eye on the view from a kid from a little town at a higher altitude than the rest of America. Those mountains and that simple upbringing… now having seen the world, it’s a unique lens. And that’s kind of the record I’ve made is something that feels very much like, okay folks, here’s what I’ve seen. Having traveled a bit, as well as the fact that I think stylistically there’s a real emphasis on that Appalachian sound that is a part of what I grew up listening to and playing.”
He revealed that Jerry Douglas and Dan Tyminski will appear on several tracks, as well as the folk-rock band Dawes.” It’s a really interesting project. I hope you love it.”
More than 500 guests enjoyed a special dinner curated by Chef Sean Brock of Audrey, a Nashville restaurant inspired by his Appalachian roots and traditions of the rural south. Inside the venue’s theater, the crowd heard virtual remarks from NBC Sunday TODAY host Willie Geist and watched a short film that illustrated the impact of the Foundation since its inception 23 years ago, including a retrospective of the Foundation’s earliest days and landmark research progress to date.
Singer-songwriter Caitlyn Smith kicked off the performances with an acoustic set that featured her songs “High” and “Dreamin’s Free.” Smith spoke to Country Now about her involvement with the event. “I don’t personally know anybody with Parkinson’s, but I know that it’s the fastest-growing brain disease. There are 6 million people that have it, and there’s no cure. And so for me, when I hear that, I just wanna do whatever I can to help so that we can help fund research and find a cure for this. I’m grateful to be a part of tonight.”
She intentionally chose more uplifting songs for her set. “Normally I’m the sad girl of country music, right? But I’m singing ‘High’ tonight, which is kind of an uplifting, soulful song, that when you think of a memory, you still get these happy high feelings.” For her last song, she sang “Dreamin’s Free,” a sweet song she wrote to encourage people to reach for the stars. “It’s the way that my husband and I really connect. We love to sit down and dream together. We can think of anything ‘cause dreams are free.”
Comedian Nate Bargatze, who recently broke an attendance record at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena, delivered a hilarious standup routine, adding a dose of laughter to the fun-filled evening.
Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town then took the stage to share the story of her personal connection to Parkinson’s Disease, detailing her family’s journey since her mother’s diagnosis 18 years ago.
“Her symptoms were really mild for about 10 years,” Schlapman told Country Now. “We kind of knew the surfacey things about Parkinson’s – tremors, movement disorder, that kind of thing. But in the last five or eight years, she’s really begun to progress in her disease and we’ve found out more and more about the complexities of this disease. It’s just unbelievable how widespread the symptoms are. And so I became really involved [with the Foundation] at that point and trying to just help find a cure for this wretched disease. And that affects so many people. It’s the fastest growing brain disease in the world and we have to find a cure. And Michael J. Fox is gonna do it, because he is passionate and relentless.”
Schlapman suggested bringing a fundraising event to Nashville and served as co-chair for “A Country Thing Happened On The Way to Cure Parkinson’s,” a spinoff of the annual New York City event called “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to Cure Parkinson’s.”
When she asked her bandmates to perform, it was an easy yes for the group. Karen Fairchild of Little Big Town talked about how Schlapman’s mom is essentially part of her own family. “I’ve known her mama as long as I’ve known her,” Fairchild told Country Now. So we’ve been friends for… 38 years? I mean I remember when her mom was pregnant with Josh. We love her family. Our parents are all getting older and we understand the struggle. She’s a busybody just like Kimberly and she loves to cook and clean and take care of everybody. And that’s her love language is serving and helping people. She was a kindergarten teacher forever. It’s just our chance to love her back when she’s loved us for so long and loved her community back in Cornelia, Georgia. And if we can get one step closer to finding a cure for this disease, that would be the greatest gift we could give to their family. So it’s an easy ask when we’re supporting each other’s loved ones.“
Schlapman was giddy as she introduced Michael J. Fox to the stage, along with Foundation CEO and Co-Founder Debi Brooks. Schlapman addressed Fox and his wife Tracy, saying “You are absolute angels to our family. The two of you and the incredibly kind folks at your foundation, the doctors, the scientists who just will not give up your dedication to finding a cure. You all give us hope, you give breath and live of what can be, what could happen.”
Fox and Brooks shared their gratitude for the Nashville community showing up to support the Parkinson’s community, especially in light of the tragic events of the past month, referencing the Covenant School shooting. True to his nature, Fox kept the mood light and went off script several times, sharing his unique sense of humor and infectious optimism. He sported a Western-style shirt and boots, joking to the crowd that they may be made of octopus.
Brad Paisley brought music back to the stage and performed an acoustic set that included his hits “Last Time for Everything,” “She’s Everything,” “First Cousins,” “I’m Gonna Miss Her,” “Ticks,” and “Little Moments.” Throughout his set, he joked about his time attending Belmont University, where he nearly flunked his guitar class. Now, he has a ballroom at the school’s performing arts venue named after him. “If I had only had this when I went to school here, I’d have been more popular,” he quipped.
Little Big Town showcased their stellar harmonies with their tunes “Boondocks,” “Rich Man,” and “Girl Crush.” They closed out their set with “Friends of Mine ” off their latest album Mr. Sun. “It’s just about soaking up the life that we have and living in the moment and the present and being here for each other,” Fairchild told Country Now.
The evening culminated with Little Big Town and Brad Paisley on stage performing Alabama’s “Mountain Music,” in honor of the band’s Jeff Cook who lived with Parkinson’s disease and passed away in November 2022.
Paisley reflected on Cook’s journey with Parkinson’s disease, telling Country Now, “Jeff’s wife would tell me from time to time that it was truly inspiring the way he never complained. I don’t think I could have done that. I’d be complaining. I would be pretty hard to live with I think. What an amazing guy. His grace of dealing with the disease all the way to the end was inspiring.”
The Michael J. Fox Foundation is the world’s largest nonprofit funder of Parkinson’s research, dedicated to accelerating a cure for Parkinson’s disease and improving therapies for those living with the condition today. The Foundation has funded $1.75 billion in research to date. For more information, visit michaeljfox.org.