I'm a product of rural America. I grew up in Norman, Oklahoma. My mom and dad both grew up on farms.
Communities like this are the backbone of our country. Our rural countryside feeds America, supplies its energy and represents 44 percent of our all-volunteer military.
At the same time, these communities suffer from a host of challenges, including an increase in crime, drug use, childhood poverty and widespread obesity. Even with the Affordable Care Act offering more Americans health insurance, our neighbors in rural America lack access to this care because of the great distances they need to travel to see a doctor and get treated.
One in six of us calls rural America "home." Yet the median household income in rural America is 22 percent below that of urban locations. And despite recent government indicating strong job growth across the country, it's not happening in rural areas, especially those that depend on agriculture. Young people can't find employment and are leaving rural towns in droves with little hope they will ever return.
As I perform throughout the country, I have asked myself: What's to be done to preserve and nurture rural America -- that part of our country that helps define and support the rest of us? These communities are looking for a hand up, not a hand out.
Even though we send billions overseas in foreign aid, we need to think domestically and look at rural America as an emerging market desperately deserving our help.
I strongly believe that if people are given the tools they need, they will accomplish great things. But these tools don't have to be expensive factories or fancy office parks.
I was astonished to learn that, according to a 2013 University of Texas study, something as simple as providing rural counties with access to broadband infrastructure resulted in faster income growth and slower increases in unemployment than in similar counties with fewer people online.
That's why I became interested in what Frontier Communications was doing to help rural communities. This telecom company has gone beyond infrastructure investment in broadband. Instead, it began to looked for ways to find seed money for projects in America's heartland that would result in a better quality of life.
The result was America's Best Communities, a competition that will award significant money for projects that range from healthy living initiatives and creating green spaces, to housing development, transportation enhancements, business incubators, and infrastructure improvements to help communities grow and prosper. Hundreds of communities applied and there are now 50 top contenders. The winners will be announced next year.
I was asked to be part of this effort and I responded enthusiastically after I saw that Frontier's initial commitment of $5 million would assist dozens of communities. Three other companies, Dish, CoBank and The Weather Channel joined the effort and the result is now more than $10 million in cash awards.
As a performer, I constantly look for ways to give back to my family, friends and fans who live in rural America. They are the heartbeat of our country. America's Best Communities is an innovative way to call attention to the needs of our neighbors in small communities and ensure that they are not forgotten. I am honored to be a part of this effort.