Outside of an awards show, it's hard to imagine a more star-studded concert than the one put on by Universal Music Group at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium on Wednesday. Get a gander at this bill: George Strait, Lady Antebellum, Eric Church, Luke Bryan, Dierks Bentley, Scotty McCreery, Lauren Alaina, Little Big Town, Vince Gill, Josh Turner, Darius Rucker, Kacey Musgraves, Billy Currington, David Nail, and six other artists came out to perform one acoustic song each (with the exception of King George, who, being a star among stars, was allowed three for his climactic appearance).
The catch was that you had to be a DJ or programmer to attend this noontime showcase during the annual Country Radio Seminar. Those who did got a pretty good idea of what some of the big hits of the coming year will be, as more than half the artists performed unreleased material, with the remainder playing songs that are still fairly fresh newcomers to the chart.
The annual event is also an opportunity for tastemakers to pick out a possible star of the future, when a fresh-faced unknown suddenly gets a standing ovation. Last year, that instant discovery was Kacey Musgraves. This year, it was a young woman named (write this name down) Mickey Guyton. But if Guyton provided the afternoon's biggest wow factor among newcomers, two other forthcoming freshman acts, the Brothers Osborne and Chris Stapleton, also looked likely to cause huge waves in 2013.
With Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, much was made of the idea that their forthcoming sophomore efforts were being made in Music City at leisure, away from the pressure of the post-Idol rush. McCreery was introduced as "finishing his first true Nashville album," and he said he was determined to "make sure I can write a little bit." Saying he wanted to "show you what my penmanship is like a little," he sang the up-tempo "Girl I Gotta See You Tonight," playing a frustrated beau who gets tired of phone calls and texting and has to rush over to see his gal in the flesh. "Listen for me pulling in the drive," he sang, sounding just a little bit more sensually fixated than he ever did on his debut.
The host said they hadn't been sure Alaina would make it in time for the noontime show after rushing up to Nashville from Chattanooga, and soon enough, she explained: "I had to take my test for high school graduation today. If I failed, I hope you like my song! Because I don't have anything to fall back on." Not to worry: The new "Break Down" (written by Heather Morgan, who joined her on stage) sounded like a tuneful enough uncollegiate backup plan, with the Idol alum wailing "How many times are we gonna break down before we break up?" like someone who'd had a lot more life experience than a high school senior's.
Speaking of breakups, the Universal emcee introduced Vince Gill by saying, "We are never, ever breaking up (again)." There is a story there. At last year's show, Gill announced that he and Universal had come to the end of his contract and he would no longer be recording for them, after a decades-long run—but there were no hard feelings, hence his showing up to sing at the event. When he was announced as a performer again this year, it seemed like stretching the still-friends analogy a little bit far. But he's no longer an ex-Universal artist. Since then, Mike Dungan assumed the reins of the company in a Universal-Capitol merger, and he told Gill he wanted to make a record with him. "I'm surprised to be back," admitted the Hall of Fame member. "I don't have a new record yet," nor is he even in the studio yet, "but I will be going for adds Tuesday," he joked.
On a far more serious note, Gill used his time on stage to sing the eulogistic "Go Rest High on That Mountain" in honor of Mindy McCready. "She was part of our family. She was part of the history of country music, and that mattered," he said, before launching into the scarily appropriate opening lines: "I know your life on earth was troubled, and only you could know the pain..."
Gill said the Ryman, which was originally built as a church, felt like a reverent place to do that number. Similarly, the artist who followed him on-stage, Eric Church, said "the Ryman's the right place to do this song" before doing an acoustic version of "She Loves Me Like Jesus Does" with backup singer Joanna Cotton.
Luke Bryan brought out Chris Stapleton, "in my opinion one of the best singers I've ever heard," to sing a yet-unreleased song that Stapleton co-wrote for him that, like Gill's song, is a eulogy for a friend or relative who died too young. Mournful as it is, though, this number is only appropriate for a funeral party of one: "I'm gonna sit right here on the edge of this pier/And watch the sunset disappear/And drink a beer."
The drinking theme carried over—but the sadness definitely didn't—when Dierks Bentley sang "Drunk on a Plane," about a guy who bought two tickets for a vacation but only ends up using one of the seats, thanks to a breakup in the meantime. Bentley is a licensed pilot, so the host asked him if he was advocating piloting while intoxicated. "No, it's more of a Southwest situation," Bentley assured everyone.
Kacey Musgraves currently has a top 10 country hit with the song she got a standing ovation for a year ago,"Merry Go Round." This time, she introduced a more light-hearted tune from her about-to-break album, "Follow Your Arrow." It's not likely to ever be a country radio single, as a live-and-let-live anthem that advises uptight listeners to "kiss all the boys... or kiss all the girls, if that's what you're into" and "smoke a joint, or don't." The audience was enthralled and laughing uproariously from the very first lines, and gave the song a huge round of applause when she wrapped up. But afterward, there seemed to be a consensus forming that everyone there would love to play the song but doubted they could get away with it in the format.