Like many small-town kids, Justin Moore’s friends talked about moving to somewhere bigger.
That could be … well, almost anywhere. Back then, Poyen, Ark., had 272 people; it later soared to 290.
“I was the one, out of all my buddies, who didn’t want to leave,” Moore recalled. “I’m the one who did it – and the only one who didn’t want to.”
Not to worry: Moore, 35, is now back in Poyen, with his wife and four kids, running the ranch he worked as a kid. But he often travels to much bigger places to do country music – including PBS’ Memorial Day eve concert, Sunday in Washington, D.C.
That’s MUCH bigger. Weather permitting, the estimated crowd will be 1,000 times the size of Poyen.
“It’s pretty scary,” Moore said. “But sometimes it’s easier to sing in front of a whole lot of people than it is to have just a few people looking at you.”
And he has a song (“The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home”) that fits the occasion. “It’s like he wrote it for this concert,” said producer Michael Colbert.
Colbert is stacking the show with varied talent, from Patti LaBelle to Gavin DeGraw. “We’re blessed with this great tapestry of American music,” he said.
That approach works for two big-scale events: It was 40 years ago that the late Jerry Colbert launched “A Capitol Fourth” and 30 years ago that he add the Memorial eve event. Michael was a college student during that first Memorial show, “carrying my dad’s Diet Coke.”
He continues the mixture of music and real-life stories. This time, that includes a nod to next month’s 75th anniversary of D-Day. Ray Lambert, 98, is expected to be there, as Sam Elliott tells of Lambert rescuing the wounded on Omaha Beach, even after he was seriously wounded,
“He’s a superstar to me,” Colbert said. “He has two Silver Stars, three Bronze Stars …. He said he’s been watching the concert on TV with his wife for years.”
Moore has often heard about war heroes. “It’s been instilled in me how important it is to honor them.”
That was in a classic, small-town childhood. His dad worked for the post office, his family had a small restaurant and he spent a lot of time on his grandfather’s ranch. He also had the consummate small-town experience – winning a state basketball championship.
As Moore, who’s 5-foot-6, recalls it, he was the point guard until his senior year, when a better one moved to town. He took the other guard spot and became a role-player – “maybe scoring 8-10 points a game and playing defense.” That worked; the team had a 39-0 season.
He got serious about music his junior year, “ended up goin’ to college for two weeks” and joined his uncle’s Southern rock band and moving to Nashville. Six years later, he signed as a country solo act.
There have been hits he wrote (including, appropriately, “Small Town USA”), ones he co-wrote (including “Jesus and Jack Daniels” and “The Ones That Didn’t Make It Back Home”) and ones others wrote and he debuted, including “You Look Like I Need a Drink.”
But a big one was when he heard an obscure, 2006 single by Rhett Akins (Thomas Rhett’s father). “I thought, ‘Man, that one there is a song!’ How in the world has someone (else) not done this?”
So he did. “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” like several other Moore songs, hit No. 1 on the country chart. “I recorded it and then I lost my grandfather; he kind of died unexpectedly.”
Now both granddads are gone. Moore owns and works the ranch that one of them had, the same one he worked as a kid. He lives the town-of-300 life … with an upcoming concert before 300,000.
— “National Memorial Day Concert,” 8 p.m. Sunday, PBS; most stations repeat at 9:30
— Joe Mantegna and Mary McCormack (a late addition) host; presentations by Sam Elliott (World War II), Dennis Haysbert (Vietnam), Jaina Lee Ortiz (Gold Star widow)
— Music by Patti LaBelle, Gavin DeGraw, Alison Krauss, Justin Moore, Chris Jackson, Amber Riley, the National Orchestra and choruses; Alyssa Raghu does the National Anthem