BOBBY KARL WORKS THE ROOM Chapter 419
If you love country music, the annual Team UMG Country Radio Seminar showcase at the Ryman Auditorium might be the best two-and-a-half hours you’ll spend with music all year long.
That’s especially true if you enjoy hearing fresh, new sounds from both familiar stars and newcomers. Here’s the drill: The label parades its roster across the stage one by one, and each act performs just one song.
On Wednesday (2/27), the company presented 21 artists to the dazzled CRS conventioneers. The weather outside was cold, raw, blustery, rainy and downright nasty, but any discomfort melted away inside the hallowed hall.
“Every year, we try to figure out a way to top ourselves,” said host Royce Risser. “You have to have a merger!” Therefore, Universal had not only its MCA and Mercury rosters to present, but also its newly acquired Capitol and EMI stars. What a bountiful harvest. Here’s how it went down.
(1) “If you’re not awake, you’re going to be now,” promised Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum. The trio performed its jaunty new “Downtown” with flawless harmonies intact. Afterward, Royce presented the pregnant Hillary with a “Baby Antebellum” onesy. It was sized for a 24-month-old. “I’m in trouble if the baby is this big,” said the expectant mom.
(2) “I’m new to the game and I’m glad to be at the Ryman today,” said Drake White. “This place always gives you the jitters a little bit.” His soulful, intense performance of “The Simple Life” was capped by a testifying, revival-style rap at the finale with stomping feet. “I put spiders in his boots,” confided Royce, “and he got them all.”
(3) Billy Currington was next. He introduced a ballad about romance in Key West titled “23 Degrees South,” accompanied by his accomplished solo acoustic guitar playing.
(4) Last year, Kacey Musgraves drew a spontaneous standing ovation by singing “Merry Go Round.” The single is now in the top-10, and she is nominated as an ACM Female Vocalist of the Year. “I can’t thank you enough for ‘Merry Go Round’ and what you’ve done for me,” she told the radio tastemakers. Her performance of the delightfully witty and highly amusing “Follow Your Arrow” brought down the house. In a word, genius.
(5) Royce introduced The Brothers Osborne by saying, “You may not have heard of them. But remember, you never heard of Kacey Musgraves last year or Kip Moore the year before.” This is the fourth year that UMG has staged its CRS Ryman show. The Baltimore-bred Osborne siblings performed the country ballad “Let Me Love the Lonely Out of You” with one brother supplying powerful vocals and the other brother supplying poetic solo electric lead-guitar passages.
(6) “I want to thank you all for allowing me to live my dream every day,” said David Nail. He’s following up his first No. 1 hit, “Let It Rain.” He introduced the driving, uptempo, groove soaked “Whatever She’s Got.” As always, his voice was stunning.
(7) “What a difference a year makes!” exclaimed Kimberly Schlapman of Little Big Town. “Holy cow!” The foursome is now the reigning CMA Group of the Year and won its first Grammy earlier this month for “Pontoon.” LBT introduced its next single, a terrific ballad of lost love called “Your Side of the Bed.” Its fabulous harmony vocals soared into the rafters of the Ryman and earned the group the day’s first standing ovation.
(8) Eric Paslay did an excellent job with his country weeper “She Don’t Love You, She’s Just Lonely.” The hit songwriter gave us a beautifully shaded vocal performance as well as taut acoustic-guitar accompaniment.
(9) Scotty McCreery is working on a new album and was eager to show the audience that he is emerging as a songwriter. His co-penned “I Gotta See You Tonight” was bopping and romantic.
(10) Newcomer Mickey Guyton hails from the Dallas area. This was her first CRS and her first time at the Ryman. Her “Better Than You Left Me” was a gospel-inflected power ballad that drew cheers in mid song when she unleashed a firestorm chorus vocal. Clearly overcome by the standing ovation she received, she emotionally hugged Royce as she left the stage.
(11) Luke Bryan brought out singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton to sing with him. Chris and Jim Beavers co-wrote Luke’s moving ballad of a premature death titled “Drink a Beer.”
(12) Next, Chris Stapleton returned to the stage to sing the rippling, rolling and effortlessly soulful “What Are You Listening To.” It is a great song, and it drew a big, big cheer from the crowd.
(13) “He’s on a roll,” said Josh Turner of Chris. Josh’s toe-tapper “Deeper Than My Love” was also co-written by Chris. “He had some leftover songs. I said, ‘Sure.’”
(14) Nashville native Randy Montana introduced the moving “Funerals and Football Games,” a lyrical slab of real life wherein a factory closes and its devastated workers must face the future with heads held high. I remain a fan of this guy.
(15) Kelleigh Bannen was clearly frightened out of her mind facing the CRS crowd. “Y’all are more intimidating as a group than you are on your own,” she said. “I’m nervous as hell.” She babbled onward, garbling Royce’s name and admitting, “This is spiraling downward.” Singing the rhythmic “Jukebox” turned out to be the best remedy.
(16) With 10 No. 1 hits under his belt, Dierks Bentley was a crowd favorite. He recalled being the first act to play The Stage on Lower Broadway when it opened, as well as being fired from the club. “I dreamed of getting inside this building,” he said of the Ryman. “It’s always amazing to be here.” Dierks is working on songs for a new record and introduced the quirky “Drunk on a Plane” as one that might be included.
(17) It had to happen to someone: Darius Rucker totally screwed up when he began to sing “Wagon Wheel.” “Did I really start on the third verse?” he asked himself incredulously. “At the Ryman? What’s the first line?” he implored the audience, and someone provided it. Lady A’s Charles Kelley came out and joined Darius on chorus harmonies.
(18) Lauren Alaina almost didn’t make the show. She drove up from Georgia and arrived in the nick of time. “I had to take my high-school graduation test today,” she explained. “So if I don’t pass, I hope you like my song.” It was an aching number titled “Break Down.”
(19) “I almost cried last year when he said his time at UMG was up,” said Royce of Vince Gill. “He’s a freaking liar. We are never, ever breaking up.” Said Vince, “I’m surprised to be back, I must say.” His contract had expired, but after Mike Dungan took over, he called Vince to say, “I want to make a record with you.” “Done,” Vince replied.
The Country Music Hall of Famer told the attendees that he hasn’t recorded anything new yet and had wondered what he should sing for them. “This is a holy place,” he commented. “And I wanted to do this song in memory of sweet Mindy McCready. She was part of our family. She was part of the history of country music. And that mattered. The day’s third standing ovation greeted “Go Rest High on That Mountain.”
(20) The fourth standing ovation went to Eric Church, whose Chief is the CMA Album of the Year and who is the most nominated artist at this year’s ACM awards. He and Joanna Cotton performed “Like Jesus Does.”
(21) “How do we top last year’s finale with George Strait?” pondered Royce. “By having a finale with George Strait!” The Country Music Hall of Fame member kicked off his set with “Here for a Good Time” and took things home from there.
Working the rooms at the Convention Center and/or the Ryman on Wednesday were Donna Hughes, Kyle Frederick, Martha Moore, Bill Wence, High Valley, Steve Lowry, Steve Hodges, Bobby Young, Chris Farren, Karen Tollier, Ash Bowers, Maggie Rose, Carla Wallace, Bob Doerschuk, Jeff Green, Mike Sisted, Tom Lord and Joanna Mosca. By the way, Mike Dungan watched his own label’s show amongst the rest of us, seated in the Ryman’s Confederate Gallery balcony. What a guy.