In the late afternoon of Labor Day 2007, a small group of singers lined the spacious stage of the Glass Cactus Nightclub in Grapevine. It was the first group of many that would comprise the latest edition of the annual Pickin' for Preemies benefit concert. Walt Wilkins, with his wife, Tina, Darren Kozelsky, Adam Hood, and a scruffy, pre-Oscar-winning Ryan Bingham offered impassioned performances that had early arrivers hollering away hangovers from the holiday weekend.
Though the gorgeous Wilkins duet "Someone Somewhere Tonight," and Bingham's fiery take on "Southside of Heaven," are still reverently discussed by those in attendance, it was a tiny item on each table in the club that forcefully held attendees' attention.
A miniature baby's diaper, small enough to nestle in the middle of your palm, packed a sizable wallop. The diapers weren't for a child's doll, but for an undersized, prematurely born baby, and they drew close attention. On a day when many people reveled in a day of rest, the emotionally charged centerpiece was a bracing reminder that many families were doing anything but relaxing on that holiday.
Justin Frazell, a North Texas country radio veteran and the popular morning show host on KFWR 95.9 the Ranch in Fort Worth, served as the MC that day, just as he had for the previous Pickin' for Preemies shows. Known for his passion for the Texas country and Red Dirt music scenes, Frazell was more than a cheery voice having some fun. He and his wife Casey were the parents of two prematurely born babies and had spent a combined five months between the births of their children in two different Neonatal Intensive Care Units (NICU). Their daughter Jaycie was born in 2004, and son Castin was born in June 2007.
Taking the stage with many close friends to raise funds and awareness for a cause they couldn't be closer to was a still somewhat new mission for them back then. But now, with Pickin' for Preemies in its eleventh year, the happy duo lead a team of dozens of volunteers for the annual show, which has raised over $1 million to date.
For the past eight years, the ceremonial cardboard check has been presented to Cook Children's in Fort Worth. Though the Frazell kids spent the first months of their lives in the NICUs of other area hospitals, it was Cook Children's where both underwent different life-saving procedures shortly after their respective births. The Frazells continue to use the emotional ebbs and flows as motivation for this ambitious purpose.
"We experienced firsthand what families go through with a preemie," Justin Frazell says.
"Every day was different and sometimes there was happiness, sometimes there were tears, and everything was a major deal when it came to how the baby was doing," he says.
With the Pickin' for Preemies proceeds, Cook Children's has developed a truly world-class NICU facility that's welcomed local families in need of intense hospitalization, as well as children from across the country.
The show's been held at Billy Bob's Texas in the Fort Worth Stockyards for the past several years after the event outgrew the Dallas venues it had occupied in its infancy. Each year, the lineup of talent grows stronger -- names that usually top the famed honky tonk's marquee regularly chip-in. Along with established vets such as Jason Eady, Adam Hood, and Bonnie Bishop, this year's bill features an exciting mix of emerging talent including Dalton Domino, Kaitlin Butts, and Sam Riggs, among others. As usual, major headline-type acts will not be unveiled until a day or two before the show, so as not to interfere with the touring obligations of those high-dollar artists. But judging from every past year, the wattage of the unannounced stars will be nothing short of high-powered.
Given the great importance of the cause, it's easy to forget this is a concert, after all. The unique musical memories are precious to Justin Frazell, because showing off an impressive array of independent Texas talent is also a part of this show's overall goals. There aren't many other chances each year to witness beloved artists messing around and having fun to create something unique.
"Josh Weathers is as talented a guy as you'll find anywhere, and one year, he just brought the house down," Frazell says. "And Pat Green, who's as big a name as there is, refused to play after him because Josh is just that good. Pat still says he doesn't ever want to go an anywhere if Josh has already played. It was a lot of fun to see that happen in front of everyone."
In 2008, boundary-breaking legend and Dallas-resident Charley Pride gave many their favorite Pickin' for Preemies memory when he showed for a surprise performance. Frazell vividly recalls the first time Brandon Rhyder sang the heartstring-tugging "Freeze Frame Time," a beautiful song about the small but profound joys of family life.
"The crowd sat in complete silence and you could see people wiping away tears because of the song's message," Justin Frazell says. "It was a really powerful moment I'll always remember."
Drew Kennedy, a skilled folk singer-songwriter from New Braunfels, is on the Pickin' for Preemies bill for the first time this year, and being included is no coincidence. Just a few months ago, Kennedy and his wife Holly, welcomed their son Oliver, who was born prematurely. The 37 days spent in the NICU led him to feel "exceptionally lucky," as he knew it could've been much longer, and he called Frazell for some perspective. Those events led him to shoulder a new type of responsibility.
"I am a little worried that it will be pretty emotional," Kennedy says. "But worried in a good way; like I hope I don't let my mind wander back to some of those scary moments in the middle of a song because I'll probably get choked up."
"Nothing makes you more connected to something like this than being on the receiving end of what it supports," Kennedy adds. "The people who help these little tiny children are miracle workers."
To even say their work with Pickin' for Preemies is a passion project for the Frazells is a wild understatement. Similar to a fervent missionary preacher, Justin recognizes what he's doing as "a calling." And given the results, it's easy to understand why he says so.
"For all these years now, I've been able to help give back and hopefully help a ton of families that go through what we went through," he says. "It takes a lot of people helping out and a lot of things to go right in order for this to work the way it has for over a decade, and I'm blessed to be a part of it."
Pickin' for Preemies takes place Thursday, Sept. 8, 2016, Billy Bob's Texas. More info.