CHARLOTTE, NC (Theoden Janes/The Charlotte Observer) - The most satisfying collaboration that took place on Thursday night at PNC Music Pavilion wasn't the one happening on stage between bro-country duo Florida Georgia Line and rapper Nelly (although, truth be told, that wound up being pretty darn satisfying).
Nope, the partnership that truly nailed it took place backstage before the show, when the boys from FGL teamed up with The Independence Fund – a non-profit based in Charlotte – to present a wounded Marine veteran with an $18,000 wheelchair that will change the way he's able to move about the world.
For the fifth time during their 2017 Dig Your Roots tour, groupmates Tyler Hubbard and Brian Kelley closed out a fan meet-and-greet by shaking hands with a vet and then watching him climb out of a regular ol' wheelchair and into one that looks like a cross between a WALL-E-esque robot and a tank destroyer.
In this case, the recipient of the all-terrain Track Chair was Marine Corps Staff Sergeant David Tupper, a Jacksonville, N.C. resident who suffered catastrophic injuries during an attack on his platoon just over three years ago.
"We were trucking out of Afghanistan on a patrol," recalled Tupper, who at the time was on his fourth tour of duty. "We started taking enemy fire, and then they started shooting rocket-propelled grenades at us. First one missed. ... No one was injured, so I tried to push my guys forward more ... and I stayed back a little bit to try and get better eyesight on the enemy, and where the fire was coming from.
"At that time, I heard an explosion. Next thing I knew, I was in the air. ... (When) I came to ... I couldn't feel anything from my waist down."
Tupper had suffered a traumatic brain injury that left him paralyzed. He spent more than a year in rehab – including a stint at Hunter Holmes McGuire VA Medical Center, where he met and eventually adopted a black Labrador retriever named Yeager (after Air Force legend Chuck Yeager); the dog also was wounded during combat in Afghanistan, after an improvised explosive device detonated and killed his handler.
But the chair is a game-changer for Tupper. The "Action Trackstander" chair – which was provided to him by The Independence Fund thanks to monetary gifts from donors (Florida Georgia Line's involvement is in the interest of awareness, more than anything) – will allow him to navigate virtually any type of terrain. It also comes equipped with the ability to put him into a standing position.
"I'm gonna get out hunting and fishing," Tupper said, "and I'm definitely going to be able to go on the beach a lot easier now." The chair should also change the way he's able to interact with his children, who are 9, 6 and 4. ("They always want to sit in his lap ... so now he can accommodate them much more easily," said Tupper's wife, Lee.)
Since its founding nearly 10 years ago, The Independence Fund has provided more than 1,600 all-terrain devices to wounded veterans like Tupper.
For their part, Florida Georgia Line's Hubbard and Kelley seemed legitimately humbled by the whole experience.
"I think it's just a daily reminder to not take life for granted," Hubbard said, "and to not take even the simplest things for granted – like being able to walk, being able to hang out outside, being able to be with your family, doing things like walking through the woods."
Added Kelley: "It's just cool being a part of something that can give a little bit of life, a little bit of joy, a little bit more connection back to his family, to God, to nature – getting back to a normal life period, man. I mean, those kinds of injuries and things that happen in war, are – it's just ... it's wild. So to be a part of a little bit of extra light, that's what it's all about."
As for the show itself? Well, I can tell you: There was a lot more focus on Old Camp Whiskey (the liquor created by Hubbard and Kelley) than there was on support for our troops; it was particularly evident during "Smooth" and "Sun Daze," where the product placement (via the big screen to the rear of the stage) bordered on obscene, and "Turnt," when it was a touch more subtle (the pair performed with bottles of Old Camp at their feet).
That said, the night was still a bundle of fun. I missed the first act – Chris Lane – because I was backstage with Staff Sergeant Tupper, but I caught almost the entirety of rapper Nelly's set.
You heard that right: Rapper Nelly. It's a little crazy, actually. In theory, it shouldn't work.
No question, Nelly and FGL blend seamlessly in 2012's "Cruise," which did double-duty by launching Hubbard and Kelly and keeping Nelly relevant in one fell swoop. But one song is one thing; Nelly did seventeen songs on Thursday night, dipping into a well that includes everything from 2000's "Country Grammar" to 2010's "Just a Dream."
I mean, we're talking about a hip-hop artist trying to get a crowd going at a country show, which is kind of like trying to sell a NASCAR fan on the ballet.
But against all odds, gosh darnit, Nelly's set not only delivered, it felt like a headlining set. The crowd pulsated, hanging on the former Charlotte Hornets minority owner's every word (though his were often muffled by a struggling sound system). The woman next to me even said, as he walked off the stage after keeping country-music fans on their feet for more than an hour: "I could go home right now, and I'd be happy."
Everything else was gravy.
Florida Georgia Line isn't trying to break new ground, and in fact at times seemed primarily interested in fist bumps, high fives, and that Old Camp Whiskey.
But Hubbard and Kelley proved they certainly can play guitar if called upon (Exhibit A: "Round Here"; Exhibit B: "Dirt"), and Hubbard appeared to be proficient on the grand piano during startlingly moving renditions of "H.O.L.Y." and "God, Your Mama and Me." It was hard, too, not to appreciate the ambition behind the seven 20-foot-tall inflatable trees that sprouted before they launched into "Dig Your Roots."
If one were to complain about Florida Georgia Line, it'd be about the sameness in its sound, from song to song; but the encore was a rapturously pulse-pounding wake-up call, with Nelly returning to the stage (wearing a No. 15 Charlotte Hornets jersey) to join the FGL boys for "Hot in Herre" and, finally, "Cruise."
That title, by the way, might sum up Staff Sergeant Tupper's future pretty nicely.
"He'll be cruising all over the place in this new chair," said his wife, Lee.