Memorial Day eve concert: The statistics become real, human stories

Each year, PBS' "National Memorial Day Concert" -- on the eve of Memorial Day, actually -- offers a rich blend of music and tributes. It can have a strong impact on some viewers ... and on some participants. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

Many of us get the
general idea of Memorial Day, without the real impact.

In New Jersey, Mary
McCormack saw the parades and heard her dad's memories of being a
teenaged Marine. In Virginia, Charles Esten helped at the massive
Arlington cemetery.

Still, McCormack
said, she didn't get the depth until speaking last year at PBS'
annual concert on Memorial Day eve. “It was life-changing for me.”

On Sunday, she'll
have her second time at the concert; Esten will have his first.

He'll sing to the
masses. As a star of TV's “Nashville,” he's faced a speedway
crowd of 130,000; Sunday's crowd may double that. “When you get
that many, it's hard to tell the difference,” he said.

Esten is part of a
music line-up that includes Leona Lewis, three Broadway stars –
Cynthia Erivo, Alfie Boe and Megan Hilty – and the National
Symphony. Producers told him to sing “Some Gave All,” by Billy
Ray Cyrus. “If they had asked me to choose, I couldn't have done
better,” he said.

And McCormack will
read a tribute ... which is what affected her so deeply last year.

“Every now and
then, we get statistics” of casualties, she said. “But that
doesn't make it real to us. Then we hear about one person. We see
baby pictures and high school graduation pictures.”

Last year, she
introduced Jacke Walton, who was 6 when her dad said: “I'll be
back. Be a good girl.'”

In 1971, SSgt Lewis
Walton and six others had a reconnaissance mission near Laos. They
weren't heard from again; his body was identified 45 years later.

At last year's
concert, McCormack told about his daughter, a comforting force for
others whose family members died in war. This year, she'll tell of
Leigh Ann Hester. “She's pretty incredible.”

In 2005, Sgt
Hester's Humvee was ambushed in Iraq. Firing a rifle and throwing
grenades, she led an attack into enemy fire; she became the first
woman since World War II to win a Silver Star in combat.

Such stories neatly
fit this year – the 150th Memorial Day, the 70th
anniversary of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act ... and the
year after Hollywood scandals put a fresh emphasis on women's rights.
“I have three daughters and I want to make sure” they're in a
fair world, McCormack said.

The idea of strong
women has often filled her own life. In make-believe, she's been a
tough federal marshal (“In Plain Sight”) and the deputy national
security chief (“West Wing”). In real life, she may be the only
Hollywood star whose sister is a Supreme Court justice.

Their mom (a
therapist) and dad (who had a car dealership and an ice cream parlor)
nudged them toward community and charity work. “My sister was
always very conscious of social justice,” she said. “She had a
file cabinet in her room when she was 13, with files for 'arms race,'
'hunger' and so on.”

Bridget McCormack,
now 51, would become a law professor who started the Michigan
Innocence Clinic and, in 2013, was elected to the Michigan Supreme
Court. Her sister, 49, admires that from afar. “We have different
skills sets,” Mary McCormack said.

At 12, she starred
(playing a boy) in “Amahl and the Night Visitors.” There was more
theater, both as a performer and a fan. “We lived close to
Broadway, so we'd go to shows.”

It was a busy,
Irish-Catholic family ... but not as busy as the one she'll have in a
series (“The Kids Are Alright”) that will air after “Rosanne”
this fall. In real life, McCormack was one of three kids. On the ABC
show, she and Michael Cutlitz have eight boys.

Esten, 52, will have
his TV return sooner. “Nashville” returns June 7, for its final
eight episodes.

“Nashville” the
show is ending, but Nashville the city is where he'll still live with
his wife and three kids. “Within a week of moving here, we knew all
our neighbors. There's a real culture of kindness.”

It's a bit like the
culture that prevails during the Memorial Day eve concert.

-- “National
Memorial Day Concert, 8 p.m. Sunday (actually, Memorial Day eve),
PBS; most stations will rerun it at 9:30.

-- Joe Mantegna and
Gary Sinise return as hosts; this time, Sinise also performs with his
Lt. Dan Band.

-- More music: Leona
Lewis, Charles Esten (“Nashville”), the National Symphony,
choruses and Broadway's Megan Hilty (“Wicked”), Cynthia Erivo
(“Color Purple”), Alfie Boe (“Les Miserables”).

-- Speakers include
Mary McCormack, Allison Janney, John Corbett, Brian Tee, Graham
Greene and Colin Powell.