WACO, Texas (KWTX) Another Heart O' Texas Fair & Rodeo has come to an end, but without a doubt the highlight of the 67th annual event was watching a little girl's dream come true.
(Photo by Rissa Shaw)
Thousands of people came to see the fair's opening weekend headliner, Texas Country music artist Aaron Watson, however, they left as fans of Layla Evetts.
The 6-year-old from Riesel and Joshua is fighting terminal brain cancer.
With the help from the local community, Watson made his concert a night Layla would never forget.
"Not the Heart O' Texas Fair--but Laylapalooza," Watson told KWTX in an exclusive pre-concert interview.
"I'm just really going to dote on her, I'm going to be neglecting other girls in the crowd tonight."
The country singer learned about Layla's story a few weeks ago in a text from KWTX news anchor Julie Hays who befriended Watson while they both were students at Abilene Christian University.
"We met in college, it's been neat to watch her career grow, she's just a sweetheart," said Watson.
"Any bum can strum a guitar, you've got to thank Julie, it was her idea, I give her all the credit."
He says what Julie told him inspired him to want to give Layla an experience she'll remember for the rest of her life, no matter how long or short.
"It's such a heartbreaking thing that family's going through," said Watson.
"My wife and I, we lost a little girl, Julia Grace, so it just kinda started tugging at my heart, and I said 'well, let's do something special.'"
Thanks to the generosity of several local business owners, Watson was able to throw a surprise party backstage for Layla and her family and friends.
"A big shout out to Bricker with Bruner Events, Daisy Cakes by Lyndz, Chick-fil-a and the Heart O' Texas Fair," said Watson.
"For me, I just always wanted to have music with meaning, and every once in a while God gives you a special opportunity like this."
Before the concert, Watson surprised Layla and her crew with the party, served up some chicken nuggets, then took the group onto his tour bus where he sang 'Bluebonnets'--the song he wrote for his daughter who died shortly after she was born on Oct. 10, 2011--with Layla and her friends who are around the same age his daughter would have been.
"The second verse says 'there's so much I can't explain such as gravity and pain, still I remain blindfolded full of faith, I kiss my angel girl goodbye, still can't help but wonder why, but I believe I'll see her again someday,'" said Watson. "I don't know how i'm going to be able to sing that tonight so...it kind of hits home, ya know...Layla."
Watson teared up as Layla sang along as he played her favorite song on the guitar.
"She is so joyful, and I mean, she was back here on the bus singing with me, and I don't think I was tearing up because of her situation: I was just tearing up because of how beautiful she is," said Watson. "She shines, she shines brighter than the other kids do, all the other kids are beautiful, too, but Layla shines bright, it's hard to explain but it's like that girl's already got angels watching over her or something."
To ensure they looked the part, several hours before the concert, Layla and her twin sister Rayleigh were each surprised with a special gift: custom-fitted cowgirl hats, hand shaped by the owner of Standard Hat Works, Cameron Morris.
"Do y'all have some hats to wear? No?" Morris asked the girl. "I think I might know a place that has a few."
Morris fitted the girls with straw hats then steamed and shaped them by hand, giving the entire Evetts family a tour of his shop afterward, explaining the hat-making process.
To top it off, he also let the girls pick out their own hat ribbons and gave each of them a souvenir: he gave Rayleigh the feather out of his own hat, and he gave Layla a magic card he's held onto for years in hopes it would bring her good luck.
"I've been saving it to give to someone special...figured you'd be a special person to give that to," Morris told Layla.
By the end, Layla was smiling from ear-to-ear, however, underneath her new hat a war is underway.
Nineteen months ago, Layla and her family's life completely derailed when they learned she had an aggressive form of pediatric brain cancer called diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG).
"I know what her mom and dad are kind of going through," said Watson. "I don't even think time heals some heartaches, so you just pray."
Although the survival rate is low, the first-grader continues to beat the odds, and through clinical trials and radiation has lived three-times longer than her prognosis...long enough to meet Watson, her favorite country music singer.
"I said 'am I your favorite artist?' and she said 'favorite COUNTRY artist,'" Watson laughed. "I think Taylor Swift has me beat."
But would T-Swift put couches on the side of the stage to make Layla and her friends VIPs, invite them all on stage for a fiddle trick, then sing a duet with Layla?
"People keep thanking me for doing this backstage, but I really wish that they wouldn't...because there's nothing to thank," Watson cried. "She deserves it, ya know? And I just think her family deserves just a night not to think about the future and the heartaches they have ahead of them and just keep praying for a miracle, and God can do anything."
Although there's something tough around the corner, Watson says he's in awe of Layla's spirit.
"When I meet people who are going through tough times like this--I don't think everything happens for a reason, I just think this world can be a terrible place, and I just hate these kind of things," said Watson. "There's so many things about this world I hate, the heartache, but when I see Layla--those are the things about this world that I love."
Watson said he fell in love with Layla the moment they met.
"I never met Layla before, but as soon as she saw me she just ran and jumped in my arms and I instantly fell in love with her," said Watson. "She has that love of Jesus inside her; if you don't believe in Jesus, you should just look at Layla."
He says everyone should take lessons from her.
"You look at Layla and how joyful she is, and I mean, she is living life, and it's like we should all be living life like Layla," said Watson. "What she's going through, I think what it's done, it's made her that much more special and that much more unique, she's going through some really tough times, but she's not missing a beat."
Layla was stomping her cowgirl boots to the beat on stage when Watson took her hand and brought her to the microphone to sing 'Bluebonnets' with him, a song that wasn't originally on the set list but is Layla's favorite.
"I don't like to cry in front of thousands of people, but I don't care anymore," said Watson.
"I'll have to put on my 'big boy' pants."
By the end of the show the crowd was chanting 'Layla! Layla!' and wanting her to autograph their boots and hats.
"I want thank Layla for the example that she's setting for all of us," said Watson.
The surprises for Layla didn't stop when the music did: after the concert, the fun continued on Watson's bus where he hung out with Layla and her family.
"Love the whole family already, she and her sister are so cute, and her little brother," said Watson.
Before asking Layla to sign his boot so she'll always be with him, he gave her a card with his phone number so whenever she feels sad or sick he can sing her some songs over FaceTime to cheer her up.
"I have one goal, and that's just make Layla happy," said Watson.
Although he planned an unforgettable night for her, Watson says it was Layla who made him feel like the special one.
"I just want to thank Layla for her hugs and for making me feel bigger than George Strait, so thank you Layla," he said.
Layla is currently being treated with a drug being tested in a clinical trial, she has an MRI later this month to gauge the progression.
She typically travels by plane for her Houston hospital appointments--her in-flight music of choice? Aaron Watson.