February 12, 1999

Country music industry hits the slopes to raise cancer research funds

Country music industry hits the slopes to raise cancer research funds

reporter_2.12.99_3.jpg (13k)

VUMC's Dr. Harry Jacobson, Dr. Hal Moses, and BMI's Frances Williams Preston at the benefit auction. (Photo by Cynthia Manley)

reporter_2.12.99_4.jpg (14k)

Dr. Harry Jacobson and his wife, Jan, took in the races. (Photo by Cynthia Manley)

reporter_2.12.99_6.jpg (40k)

Delbert McClinton was among the many celebrities at this year's event. (Photo by Cynthia Manley)

MT. CRESTED BUTTE, Colorado ‹ Country in the Rockies celebrated its fifth anniversary last week with a new record in attendance and an anticipated new record in funds raised to support innovative research at the Vanderbilt Cancer Center.

The annual celebrity ski event in this southwestern Colorado resort town combines skiing, snowboarding and other winter sports with country music to raise money for the T.J. Martell Foundation, the music industry charity, and the foundation's Frances Williams Preston Laboratories at the VCC.

Preston, chief executive officer of music licensing company Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI), told this year's nearly 300 participants how Country in the Rockies has grown since 1994, when the event was inaugurated by about 60 people ‹ and a winter blizzard that trapped them in Crested Butte an extra day. This year, attendance at the Feb. 3-7 event exploded by more than 100 people over last year's record-setting group.

"We have just grown incredibly, and it's been very exciting for me and the folks at the T.J. Martell Foundation and at Vanderbilt to watch," Preston said. She offered a special thank you to the guests and volunteers who have been with the event from the start and to Kathy Mattea, the first artist to offer her time and talents.

The tally of how much was raised won't be ready for several weeks. However, organizers expect the total to far exceed last year's record-setting $200,000. Over the past five years, the T.J. Martell Foundation has contributed more than $4 million to the Preston Labs.

Among the singers and songwriters on hand this year: Aaron Barker, Crystal Bernard, John Berry, Blackhawk, Suzy Bogguss, Paul Brandt, Gary Chapman, Mark Collie, Billy Dean, Skip Ewing, Dave Gibson, Robert Earl Keen, Kathy Mattea, Delbert McClinton, Mindy McCready, Gary Morris, Gary Nicholson, Jenny Simpson, and Lari White.

Highlights included an opening night "guitar pull" featuring the talents of about 30 artists in the casual setting of the hotel hearth; a celebrity bartending competition; a rockin' concert headlined by Delbert McClinton; a silent auction of artwork and celebrity memorabilia; and a live auction of vacations, memorabilia, a new Chevy truck, and other items.

The celebrity bartending competition – as popular with Crested Butte locals as with Country in the Rockies guests – pitted groups of entertainers against each other in three local bars to ham it up for tips, all of which went to the T.J. Martell Foundation.

In one bar, for example, hundreds of dollars were donated to see a local man propose to his girlfriend – diamond ring and all ‹ and to hear the country stars sing the theme song from Gilligan's Island. In another, Prime Time Country host Gary Chapman went back to his "preacher's kid roots" to pass a hat through the crowd before each song. "Hey, there's one-dollar bills in there; I'm no street entertainer," joked tuxedo-clad Robert Earl Keen. (While the Country in the Rockies dress code is "casual comfort," Keen said his attire was inspired by "Lloyd the Bartender" from Stephen King's The Shining.)

The contest became so competitive, donations continued to come in throughout the weekend as each team refused to concede defeat. In the end, the competition raised about $25,000, breaking last year's record of $18,000.

Fun aside, the cause that brought everyone to the mountain was not far from mind. Several singers spoke of loved ones who had fought cancer as they introduced themselves and their songs. Preston recalled her friend and ski instructor who died of cancer two decades ago and to whom the event itself is a tribute. Country in the Rockies, Preston said, brings together her own love for Crested Butte, the memory of a special friendship cut tragically short and the scientists she's counting on to develop ways to prevent and cure cancer. And Lolly Henry, a member of the VCC's Board of Overseers, paid tribute to Alison Chambers, who lost her long battle with ovarian cancer in November at age 52. Chambers, a two-time guest at Country in the Rockies, had a life expectancy of just months when, three years ago, she became a participant in a Martell Foundation-supported study to test the safety of an innovative new gene therapy for ovarian cancer.

Dr. Harold L. Moses, director of the Vanderbilt Cancer Center and the Preston Labs, told the group that the fifth anniversary of Country in the Rockies comes at a very exciting time for the VCC. Next week, the VCC will be reviewed by the National Cancer Institute for renewal of its NCI designation as a leader in cancer care and research and for potential enhancement of that designation to the highest level of distinction.

The VCC also now has in place an ambitious strategic plan, Moses said, with the goal of preventing most cancers and curing those that do develop with less toxic treatments.

"Our vision is that the Vanderbilt Cancer Center be the best," Moses said. "The Frances Williams Preston Laboratories and the T.J. Martell Foundation have been with us since the beginning. They have played a major role in building important programs in breast, prostate and ovarian cancer. Their support helped us to achieve our important designation from the NCI and will be the foundation for our future success."

In addition to Moses, others representing VUMC at Country in the Rockies were Dr. Harry R. Jacobson, vice chancellor for Health Affairs; Dr. Lawrence J. Marnett, Mary Geddes Stahlman Professor of Biochemistry and director of basic research at the VCC; Dr. Joseph A. Smith Jr., William L. Bray Professor and Chair of Urologic Surgery; Colleen Conway-Welch, Ph.D., dean of the Vanderbilt School of Nursing; and Susan S. Holt, director of development for the VCC.

In addition to Preston, several members of the VCC Board of Overseers have also become Country in the Rockies regulars. On hand this year were Lolly Henry with her husband, state Sen. Douglas Henry; Peggy Wood; First American Bank president Dale Polley; and O'Charley's CEO Greg Burns.

Moses said that the dedication and hard work of the artists and other volunteers who return to Country in the Rockies year after year is an inspiration to the researchers whose work the event supports. "When I see how hard these people are working for us ‹ to support the work that we do at the Vanderbilt Cancer Center ‹ it's very inspiring. We treat these funds with a lot of respect. We want to get the most out of it."