By Lauren Kezon
On November 15th, CBS Radio rose the curtain (or flag, rather) on the third annual Stars and Strings concert, which allowed the Chicago Theater to transform into equal parts country concert, podcast, storyteller series, and MTV unplugged, in a stripped-down, acoustic concert celebrating our nation’s military heroes and their families.
The evening was the playlist of our dreams. A live, acoustic shuffle of ballads and classics, heartbreakers and soul-renewers that breath life and compassion into us. Proceeds from the show went to Folds of Honor, which provides educational support to the spouses and children of our fallen and injured soldiers. Every seat in the house was donned with a white bandana and a small American flag. Rather than the customary red curtain, a larger than life American flag hung center stage pre-show. At 7:30 p.m. Drew Walker welcomed us into the night and Jim Cornelison, voice of the Chicago Blackhawks, delivered the National Anthem.
Country rock renegade Lindsay Ell kicked off the performance (and her first show at the Chicago Theater). Ell beamed, “For a blonde girl who likes to write songs and play guitar, it’s a dream to hear [my] music on the radio, so thank you CBS and US99!”
Kelsea Ballerini, Chris Young, and Brad Paisley then took over hosting duties of what now felt like a jam session atop a country porch on a warm summer night. Kelsea reminisces about going to Brad’s shows growing up, while Brad forgets a verse and goes to the crowd to remind him. As this is Ballerini’s last show before getting married, she ‘unapologetically’ showcases her broad vocal range. Chris recounts experiencing how music goes ‘around the world and back again’ while playing a show in Iraq, and accidentally calling his sister a former Marine, rather than a retired Marine.
Styles and Roman welcome the next set and had the audience collectively raise their glasses in ‘salud’ to our nation’s uniformed men and women. Darius Rucker escorts the theater into the second set with everyone on their feet, feeling grateful knowing ‘we have all we need’. For such a spacious venue, it was beautifully intimate and friendly.
Laughs and cheers are the vernacular for the second set. Everyone is on their feet when it’s Sam’s turn to serenade us, and soon stories from the road and ping-pong battles between Lady Antebellum and Sam Hunt are exchanged.
Not long after, the theater is harmonizing “Homegrown Honey”, and feeling like we’ve all been invited to a reunion with childhood friends from summer camp. Hunt then recalls how Lady Antebellum paved the way for new artists and inspired him to cultivate his own, unique sound.
Everyone left the theater with a smile on their face and a song in their hearts. While all of these songs may have different lyrics, they carry the same tune. The tune of love, community, gratitude, and the simplest form of joy. On this night, everyone was welcomed into the country music community with open arms. We all want to be Kelsea’s bridesmaid, Darius Rucker’s best friend, and have a spin-off show with Brad Paisley and Chris Young traveling around the world, getting into shenanigans.
When we go on about our lives, we ingest their music on our commutes to work, sitting in the dentist’s office or at our desks…but here, under the ornate canopy of the Chicago theater, we all share the intimate experience of feeling at home with the music we breathe and the artists that we now call friends.