Darius Rucker brought five of the most talented women in country music to the Ryman Auditorium for his 13th annual Darius & Friends concert on Monday (June 6).

Sara Evans was the first special guest, setting a high bar with two originals and a surprise cover.

Newcomers Rachel Wammack and Caylee Hammack followed, before Sheryl Crow and Lindsay Ell helped the "Wagon Wheel" hitmaker close. Even those who knew which artists would join Rucker were surprised by the dynamic setlist. The Bee Gees, Stevie Wonder and Frank Sinatra were all sampled with conviction during a rousing night aimed at raising money for St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

The cause was never forgotten during a three-hour-long concert that is becoming known as the unofficial kickoff of CMA Fest week in Nashville. Rucker shared a story about his first visit to St. Jude almost 15 years ago. This was during his transition from global superstar as the singer for Hootie and the Blowfish to country solo artist. He was, at that time, the baby act on Brad Paisley's summer tour. One day Dierks Bentley said he was going to tour St. Jude, so Rucker tagged along — he was blown away to learn that no family ever receives a bill for any part of their trip to Memphis.

From there, he pledged to do whatever he could to support that mission.

2022 Darius And Friends Concert Benefitting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Getty Images for Essential Broad

The total raised from the night has yet to be tabulated, but Rucker's yearly benefit typically nets hundreds of thousands of dollars ($410K in 2021). After a live auction for memorabilia and ticket opportunities, the singer opened with "This" and "For the First Time," two songs that literally set the tempo for the night. There were but a handful of ballads performed, and even those (like Evans singing "A Little Bit Stronger") inspired the heart. Most of the selections left fans dancing in the church pews.

Each artist was challenged to include a cover song after two originals — a concept that largely replaced the collaborative spirit of years past. Evans stormed through the Bee Gees' "If I Can't Have You" with conviction. After two gritty Southern stomps, Wammack gave fans a version of "Little Red Wagon," made popular in country circles by Miranda Lambert.

Hammack's energy onstage matched Rucker's, but she scaled it back to sing a new song called "Never Been Over" with him. That was after her surprise cover of Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues," which was received very well by the pop-country-loving audience (fans literally shot out of their seats when Rucker sang Hootie & the Blowfish or Black Crows songs).

The only other collaboration was Crow and Rucker coming together for "The First Cut Is the Deepest." This was second in her three-song set, and surprisingly, it wasn't the final guest appearance. Ell got that honor, and while she's not as famous as the rock icon, she didn't disappoint. Wonder's "Superstition" was her preferred cover song, and the singer and guitarist simply owned it, bouncing off the band for several extended musical solos without losing that famous funky lick.

Between each performance from a "friend," Rucker returned to the stage for a handful of his own songs or — most enjoyably — covers. A two-song Frank Sinatra set with four horn players was the highlight of the night for many. He's always been a fan of the crooner, and once again, he proved he's more than capable of bringing songs like "Summer Wind" to life.

He closed with "Valerie" by Amy Winehouse (a left turn on the night, but well done) and his biggest hit, "Wagon Wheel." With the crowd on their feet, the talented band came to the front of the stage, tossed picks and sticks to lucky patrons in the front rows and directed the sold-out Ryman through the chorus one final time.

2022 Darius And Friends Concert Benefitting St. Jude Children's Research Hospital
Getty Images for Essential Broad

It was a night where most didn't know what to expect, but the audience certainly left with more than they could have anticipated.

Darius Rucker + Friends for St. Jude at the Ryman Auditorium

Darius Rucker brought five of country music's most talented singers to the Ryman Auditorium during his annual benefit show for St. Jude. The June 6 concert is for many the unofficial kick off of CMA Fest week.

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