Opening with chilling video of a killer tornado and a prayer, country superstars Alabama headlined a sold-old concert Tuesday night to raise money for storm relief and remind people that thousands across their home state are still hurting from the physical and emotional damage left by the nation's worst tornado outbreak in decades.
Accompanied by a church choir and the symphony orchestra from hard-hit Tuscaloosa, members of the renowned band from Fort Payne had the crowd of 13,000 standing from the start with favorites like "Dixieland Delight" and a new song written by bassist Teddy Gentry called "Alabama Rising." The recording goes on sale Wednesday morning on iTunes, with proceeds to benefit a relief fund for storm survivors.
"Raising Alabama only takes three: The good Lord, you and me," sang Alabama frontman Randy Owen, a hand raised skyward.
Alabama was only one draw on a bill that included 18 more acts from rocker Sheryl Crow to gospel greats The Blind Boys of Alabama, who opened with a soulful version of "Amazing Grace."
The show, called Bama Rising, was staged just a few miles from ravaged communities where nearly two dozen people died in the twisters of April 27. Officials say 241 people were killed in Alabama alone, and thousands more lost their homes. Across the South the storms left more than 300 dead.
Waiting on the music to begin, Julie Kreutz of Hoover said she was happy to pay $75 each for floor seats for her parents and 6-year-old daughter.
"If it will help someone get a roof over their head, that's fine," said Kreutz. She grew up in Walker County, where nine people died in the twisters.
Holding a small Alabama flag and wearing a "One for Y'all" T-shirt sold to raise money for storm assistance, Children's Hospital nurse Katherine Kent recalled treating some of the 60 bloody, battered storm victims who flooded the emergency room the night of the tornadoes.
"That's why I'm here, to support them," said Kent.
The members of Alabama took it personally when dozens of twisters roared across their state, leaving a trail of destruction more than 600 miles long. Before long they were on the phone, talking about ways to help.
"We just said, `We've got to do something. It was just a consensus," Owen said in an interview with The Associated Press before the concert.
As they called friends in the music business, ideas for a benefit show came together quickly. Guitar player Jeff Cook said he worried about people forgetting about the devastation of that awful day.
"The weather is better and people tend to forget unless they are directly affected," Cook said. "So it's important that we tell the rest of the people who were luckier in that situation that the need is not over."
A rush of support poured into Alabama in the tornadoes' aftermath, but some organizations are now reporting fewer volunteers and dwindling donations.
Bama Rising, however, sold out quickly except for a few $1,000 VIP packages. Proceeds will go through the Community Foundation of Greater Birmingham to a new Bama Rising fund established for relief statewide.
Owen, Cook and bassist Teddy Gentry said they would serve on a board to help distribute concert proceeds for tornado relief, and they are looking for other ways to help. Natives of northeast Alabama who are still based in Fort Payne, they say they are particularly interested in helping in rural areas hit by the storms.
The band members said the tornadoes spared them as individuals, but their home county and neighbors were slammed.
"For us, it's a matter of continuing to go out long after this concert," said Gentry. "This is just a drop in the bucket compared to what we need. Things we can do individually or as a group, we're going to be doing that."
Alabama _ minus longtime drummer Mark Herndon, who is touring with country singer Leah Seawright _ planned a finale that featured all the acts including country singers Rodney Atkins, Brad Paisley and Martina McBride; R&B legends the Commodores; and others.
Atkins already has performed at two concerts for tornado relief, but he said he didn't hesitate when his management company contacted him about Bama Rising and the chance to perform alongside Alabama. The members of the Country Music Hall of Fame have had 42 No. 1 singles and sold more than 73 million records in three decades.
"The group Alabama is one of the biggest reasons I got into country music," Atkins said in an interview before the concert. "I listened to their music over and over, coming up. It is such a huge honor to be included in this."
Atkins and other acts are paying their own expenses to make sure the maximum amount goes to tornado relief.
"Hopefully we can relieve some of the stress that goes with going through such a tumultuous situation that turns lives upside down," he said. "It's the least we can do."
Other artists on the bill included Dierks Bentley; homegrown American Idol contestants Bo Bice and Taylor Hicks; Luke Bryan; Sara Evans, Little Big Town, Montgomery Gentry, David Nail, Jake Owen; Kellie Pickler, Darius Rucker and Ashton Shepherd.
Owen said even more acts volunteered to participate.
"We could have had two or three days of entertainment. A lot of people called and wanted to come," he said