Participating in Country Radio Seminar's New Faces of Country Music has been a rite of passage for the genre's elite since its inception in 1970. Everyone from Taylor Swift to Tim McGraw has performed at the industry event, billed as an introduction for country radio's most powerful players to the best and brightest of the genre's fledgling ranks.
Held February 24th at Nashville's Omni Hotel, the show is more akin to a corporate meeting than a concert, with audience chatter, clanking silverware, a bustling bar, and audio problems only a handful of the obstacles faced by performers hoping to wow radio gatekeepers.
For this year's lineup – Drake White, William Michael Morgan, Granger Smith, Jon Pardi, and Maren Morris – "New Faces" was something of a misnomer. Pardi has been getting airplay on country radio since 2012, with his sophomore album California Sunrise landing on a number of 2016 best-of lists, country and otherwise. Smith, the oldest at 37, is eight albums into his career, though his most recent release Remington was his first to earn widespread airplay. And of course Morris is one of country's few current golden girls, with a Grammy win, Saturday Night Live performance and CMA New Artist of the Year Award representing only three of her many recent accolades.
A relative newcomer, then, White and his band the Big Fire were first up on the evening's bill. As is customary for New Faces, each act prepared an introductory video to play before their scheduled performance. White's, in which a confused, disappointed hotel staff mistakes him for the other Drake, was by far the most entertaining, a welcome reprieve from the typical onslaught of sales statistics and half-baked testimonials. It was a shrewd move for the Dot Records artist, who, with only two radio singles to his name, was one of the bill's lesser-known acts by radio standards. He and his band, whose sound is something like Mumford and Sons fronted by a Chris Stapleton devotee, tore through songs like "It Feels Good" and "Livin' the Dream," effectively waking up a crowd that, at just 7:30, was still only a drink or two in.
Morgan, the youngest performer, was visibly the least comfortable of the group, appearing to deal with audio issues throughout his set that may have thrown the 23-year-old artist off his game a bit. He still wowed the crowd with songs like "Vinyl" and "I Met a Girl," both of which show off traditional-leaning vocals that sound mature beyond the Mississippi native's years.
Up next, Smith easily stole the early portion of the show. A seasoned stage veteran, he oozed charisma as he and his band performed "If the Boot Fits" and a version of "Backroad Song" that began with a cover of Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'." It was when he walked off stage, though, that things got interesting. After a quick video in which Smith appears to confront his alter ego Earl Dibbles, Jr., strobe lights and heavy guitar riffs kicked in and Smith returned to the stage as an overall-donning, beer-chugging Dibbles. It was as though YouTube briefly came to life, with Smith's parody of a certain set of male artists spot-on both in the lyrics of "Country Boy Song" and in his band's metal leaning, testosterone fueled performance, which culminated in Smith smashing two beer cans together and ripping off his tank top.
By comparison, Pardi's performance was no-frills, with the 31-year-old California native dressed simply in black and offering minimal chatter between songs like "Cowboy Hat" and "She Ain't In It," both from his excellent 2016 offering California Sunrise. The simplicity of Pardi's performance was, in some ways, reflective of his status as more of a critical darling than a radio mainstay, though his proficient, heartfelt performance may have changed the minds of a programmer or two.
Morris, naturally, was saved for last, no doubt to keep attendees from ducking out early. After eliciting the loudest cheers of the night, she opened with "80s Mercedes," a single that peaked at only number 11 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs Chart but had throngs of radio folks straining to get their phones high enough in the air to snap a photo or video. That same energy from the audience would continue throughout her four-song set, which also included "My Church, "Rich," and "I Could Use a Love Song," the last of which she announced would be her new single.
There's no question that the radio crowd counts themselves among Morris' fans, but whether or not her new single will break through the male-dominated ranks of country airplay is yet to be seen. While there was some degree of diversity of sound to the performers, the lineup itself felt – excepting Morris – like a reflection of country radio itself. And with only five of the top 25 songs on the current Billboard's Hot Country Songs Chart featuring women, the evening's ratio of men to women was unfortunately spot-on.
That said, the evening still showcased an exciting display of young country talent. In the case of Morris, this year's New Faces demonstrated just how quickly a star can rise, with or without radio support.