BOBBY KARL WORKS THE ROOM
The highlights of this year’s UMG show for CRS came from the company’s new acts as well as its established stars.
In the former category were such relative newcomers as Brandon Lay, Jordan Davis, Caylee Hammack and Kassi Ashton. Not to be outshone, proven hit makers such as Eric Church, Little Big Town, Dierks Bentley and Chris Stapleton blazed just as brightly. And then there was the enduring brilliance that is Country Music Hall of Famer Vince Gill.
As always, the event took place at the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. The venue won its 11th Pollstar Award this week as America’s No. 1 concert hall (nine of those wins have been consecutive). Fifteen artists performed at the two-hour lunchtime showcase on Thursday, Feb. 14.
“On behalf of our entire staff, welcome to the 10th Team UMG at the Ryman,” greeted host Royce Risser. “This show has really become a marquee event of CRS.”
Do you know a more lovable label promotion exec? I didn’t think so.
“It’s Valentine’s Day,” Royce continued, “and the world has had a love affair with this group since the day they started.”
Cue LBT, who introduced a new song, the strikingly feminist “God For the Daughters.” It drew a huge cheer from the radio tastemaker women, as well as the men.
Jon Pardi was up next, introducing the strummy bopper “Tequila Little Time With You.” Dierks Bentley was charming, breezy and philosophical on his fine new tune, “Living.”
Kassi Ashton, who was introduced at this CRS event last year, delivered an ear-opening ballad with a Valley-of-the-Dolls theme, “Pretty Shiny Things.” Backing her on guitar was Luke Laird, who won a Grammy Award earlier this week for co-writing “Space Cowboy” with Kacey Musgraves.
Reigning CMA Entertainer of the Year Keith Urban sang his lilting new song “We Were.” He performed it with its studio track via his phone, complete with technical glitches. Then he forgot the words. The crowd loved him dearly anyhow.
In a ballad-heavy day, newcomer Brandon Lay rocked out, delivering “Still Rock & Roll” with an endearingly youthful swagger. Maddie & Tae offered the swirly pop of their current single, “Die From a Broken Heart.” Staging his Team UMG debut was a visibly nervous Adam Hambrick, who nonetheless delivered a jaunty “Rockin’ All Night Long.”
Throughout the show, Royce dished out snarky, humorous comments about the radio folks, as well as his roster. Travis Denning got him back: “Doesn’t Royce look like a cute, Build-a-Bear Teddy Bear?” he asked the crowd. “I mean, 247 pounds of stuffing and five pounds of bull.” On his honky-tonker “After a Few,” Travis showed he has guitar chops as well as the vocal goods.
Undeterred, Royce compared bearded Jordan Davis to Big Foot, calling him “the Eighth Wonder of the World” during his intro. Jordan wowed the crowd with a dreamy, wistful, romantic ballad, “Slow Dance in the Parking Lot.” Earlier this week, Davis picked up the Breakthrough Artist of the Year honor at the MusicRow CountryBreakout Awards.
“This is one of the coolest things we get to do,” he told the CRS audience. “It’s so great to see so many familiar faces.”
Caylee Hammack was making her debut on the Ryman stage, as well as at UMG’s musical cafeteria. She delivered the hot tempo tune “Family Tree” with impressive aplomb, working the stage like a seasoned pro. Caylee has spent two-and-a-half years entertaining the tourists at Rippy’s, Tootsie’s and Honky Tonk Central.
Chris Stapleton was searing and white-hot on “Millionaire,” performing solo with just his own acoustic guitar. Eric Church was greeted with wild whistles and cheers. He was bluesy and sexy on “Heart Like a Wheel,” accompanied by the backup vocals of Joanna Cotton.
Vince Gill is now a member of The Eagles. But he’s still working on solo tracks for MCA. He brought everyone to the edge of tears with a paean to his mamma called, I think, “The Bottom of My Heart.”
“I love seeing these young people come out on this stage – it’s beautiful,” Vince reflected. “Forty-five years ago, I made my first record…I’ve been with MCA for 30 years….I feel grateful for everything that I have been given. So thank you for all those wonderful years.”
His heart-tugging performance drew a standing ovation.
The finale of Team UMG’s show is traditionally a superstar surprise. This year, it was Hootie & The Blowfish. The rock vets are newly signed to the company.
“We’ve been a band since we’ve been 18, 19,” said lead singer Darius Rucker. “We’re 50-something now. We want to thank Mike [Dungan] for giving us the chance to do this one more time.”
The band closed the show with their churning pop-rock classics “I Only Want to Be with You” and “Hold My Hand.” A standing ovation ensued.
Spotted in the cheering throng were Dale Dodson, Donna Hughes, Diane Cox, Paula Jones, Brent Jones, Mike James, Jimmy Rector, Ree Guyer, Bob DiPiero, Dan Hill, Steve Lowery, Melinda Newman, Shane Barrett, Phyllis Stark, Scott Musgrave, Clay Myers, Becca Wells, Brenden Oliver, Walter Campbell, John Reynolds, Hunter Kelly, Brandi Simms, Charlie Cook, David Friedman, Angela Strader and Rachel Whitney.