BOBBY KARL WORKS THE ROOM
The best annual concert in Nashville doesn’t sell tickets to the general public.
For the past seven years, that show has been the UMG Luncheon at the Ryman during the Country Radio Seminar convention. The label presents almost its entire roster of superstars. Each performs one number. The songs are stripped down to their country essences since most of the performances are acoustic or have minimal accompaniment. This makes the music at this show all the more powerful.
The 2016 version of the concert was staged in the midst of Tuesday’s snow storm (Feb. 9). As we filed in, one young man was enthusiastically taking selfies with snowflakes. “Don’t mind me; I’m from Florida!” he laughed. He’d never seen snow before.
We picked up our boxed lunches in the lobby, then headed for our pews. As usual, I grabbed a choice one in the balcony, which is where you want to sit in the Ryman.
“Welcome to Episode Seven of UMG at The Ryman, the best musical venue in the United States,” greeted label promo senior v.p. Royce Risser. “Thank you for braving the snow.”
“Happy Snow Day,” said Karen Fairchild of the kick-off act Little Big Town. “We’ve had an incredible year, thanks to you guys,” she added to the assembled radio programmers and execs. “We were thinking about y’all when we wrote this one.” The quartet then warmed the crowd with its flawless harmonies on the nostalgic “From the Beginning.”
Host Royce gave most of his artists nicknames as he introduced them. Canaan Smith, for instance, was “My Sweet Baby Angel.” “I don’t know if I like being called a sweet baby angel by a big grizzly man like Royce Risser,” Canaan responded. He sang the lilting, romantic “Stuck.” As he exited, Canaan shouted, “Thank you for my Number One this year, boys and girls,” referring to “Love You Like That.”
“All we ask is to show your love with airplay,” quipped Royce. He then dubbed Kacey Musgraves, “The Rhinestone Cowgirl.” She delivered the wistful, instantly catchy “Late to the Party” with aplomb. It’s on her Pageant Material CD/LP.
Next, Darius Rucker drew the day’s first standing ovation with the deeply emotional, heart-in-throat delivery of the ballad “I Sang.” People screamed and cheered wildly. “Wow,” said Royce.
Long, tall Jon Pardi was nicknamed Jon “The Bear” Pardi. He was effortlessly charming in delivering the fastest rising single of his career to date, the sublimely countryfied “Head Over Boots.”
Royce called Charles Kelley “Man Antebellum” and told us that the singer-songwriter is two weeks away from being a first-time father. Dierks Bentley and Eric Paslay joined Charles to sing their Grammy-nominated anthem “The Driver.” Performed with only acoustic guitars, this song sounded even more potent than its produced and released version. The audience sang its finale with gusto.
David Nail was dubbed David “Big Daddy” Nail, since he is the recent father of twins. “Get moving, radio: You know it’s a hit,” Royce admonished the crowd before David nailed (sorry, I couldn’t help it) his smoldering, intense ballad “Fighter.”
Royce called Dierks Bentley, “the pilot of perfection, the aviator of awesome,” which amused the star immensely. Dierks did his current single, the drawling, sassy “Somewhere on a Beach.”
Kip Moore was dubbed “Our Resident Surf Rat” by Royce. “There’s only one place that makes me nervous,” Kip told the audience. “And that is this place, in front of y’all. I know a lot of you guys. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so, so much.” Kip gave “Running for You,” a fiery, passionate, electrifying delivery. You’ll find it on Kip’s current Wild Ones collection.
“I call him flat-out sexy,” said Royce introducing Eric Paslay. The lanky singer-songwriter performed the upbeat “High Class” with wiggly, rubber-legged dance moves, which brought squeals and screeches from the ladies.
Nobody in history had won Male, Album and New Artist prizes at the CMA Awards until Chris Stapleton did so last fall. His wailing, hair-raising tenor filled the entire auditorium with its stark power as he stood with just an acoustic guitar and delivered “Either Way” (previously recorded by Lee Ann Womack, but not by him). Chris was rewarded with a loud standing ovation.
Poor 21-year-old youngster Lauren Alaina had to follow that. She shared, “My mom married my dad’s best friend. I grew up calling him Uncle Sam. Now he’s my stepdad. My dad married a 28-year-old and she’s super hot. So, go Dad.” Her song, “Doing Fine” is written with autobiographical lyrics referencing those events and set to a bopping beat.
Royce dubbed Eric Church, “Still the Chief.” The charismatic Eric went solo with his acoustic guitar to tear into his soulful ballad “Record Year.” It appears on his “surprise” album, Mr. Misunderstood, which not even his record label knew about last year.
Vince Gill was introduced as “this industry’s greatest ambassador.” He was awarded a standing ovation before he ever opened his mouth. He talked about his collaboration with Little Big Town on his new single “Take Me Down.” “We’re thinking of calling ourselves LBTVG. That could bring us an interesting new audience,” he joked. Alas, the group had to catch a plane and couldn’t perform with him.
“The label now calls me the AARP guy,” Vince continued. “I made my first record when I was a 17-year-old kid. Local radio played it, and it instilled something in me — hope.
“I have a new record coming, just like all of these knuckleheads. I ain’t quittin.’” He chose the Down to My Last Bad Habit album’s closing track, a slow country weeper in tribute to the late George Jones, “Sad One Comin’ On.” And his eloquence singing it brought him a second standing ovation.
“That’s my hero, right there,” said Royce.
Luke Bryan was next. The superstar sat at the piano to play and sing a lovely, lovely love song called “To the Moon and Back.” It appears on his current Kill the Lights album.
On Monday (Feb. 8), Keith Urban was announced as this year’s Country Radio Broadcasters Artist Humanitarian honoree. “It’s always amazing to play the Ryman,” said Keith as he took the stage. “It’s my favorite venue in all the world. It’s like playing inside of an acoustic guitar. I feel very, very blessed.” With just his own guitar accompaniment, he performed the rippling, sweetly melodic “Break On Me,” superbly.
At this exact time and on this exact show last year, Keith introduced “John Deere, John Cougar, John 3:16,” which went on to great glory. He strapped on his electric guitar to close the UMG concert with it, engaging the audience to sing along with abandon.
Leaving this great cornucopia of music with smiles on their faces were Jimmy Rector, Aaron Hartley, Joanna Carter, Sarah Skates, Brian Collins, David Freedman, Brandi Simms, Tom Lord, Troy Stephenson, Shane Allen and more than 2,000 other lucky souls.