Country Radio Seminar (CRS), the gathering of radio industry professionals from all over the world, is in full swing this week in downtown Nashville. One of the highlights of the annual convention, which features country artists performing in a wide array of settings both intimate and expansive, is the Universal Music Group’s lunchtime show on stage at the venerable Ryman Auditorium.
For a little over two hours on Thursday, CRS attendees packed the Ryman and were treated to 16 UMG artists, from Hall of Famers to young country hopefuls just getting their first taste of airplay. The idea, of course, is to entice radio programmers, DJs and other industry professionals in attendance to play the artists’ new singles, many of which were premiered at the event. But it’s also a way for the already established acts to say thanks to the radio stations that have played their songs and helped give some of the artists a string of Number One singles.
The show, which featured its fair share of foot-stomping tunes, nonetheless kicked off with Josh Turner and his latest single, “Lay Low.” Next up was Kip Moore, who joked that following the deep-voiced Turner was like going on stage after Luther Vandross. Moore, who performed the new “I’m the Blame,” thanked the crowd for the hit singles that have helped him in his philanthropic endeavor to put up skate parks in low-income neighborhoods around the country.
If crowd response to the next act, Kacey Musgraves, is any indication, the first single from her follow-up to the award-winning Same Trailer Different Park LP will soon be charging up the charts. “Biscuits,” penned by Musgraves with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, is a modern, breezy take on Hank Williams’ “Mind Your Own Business,” telling us to “mend your own fences and own your own crazy,” and reasoning that if you “mind your own biscuits, life will be gravy.”
One theme of the afternoon’s material that could have easily derailed the proceedings was a number of tributes to lost family members. A new song from Canaan Smith pays homage to the brother he lost in a car accident. Titled “Bronco,” the tear-jerking tune, Smith said, will serve as the title track of his upcoming full-length album.
David Nail followed with “Home,” a song that was inspired by the death of his grandmother. He prefaced the tune, however, by joking that he was “out of medication that helps with anxiety.”
From the melancholy to the magnificent, the Ryman Auditorium’s acoustics offer the perfect spot to showcase remarkable vocal ability and the afternoon offered several opportunities to do just that, especially for Little Big Town, whose latest single, “Girl Crush,” is no doubt on its way to a fruitful awards season, thanks in no small part to Karen Fairchild’s mesmerizing lead vocal.
Singer-songwriter Chris Stapleton also energized the crowd with a voice that’s almost otherworldly, and yet entirely down to earth. His “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” may fit the departed relatives theme of the day, but his vocal ability is beyond description. Stapleton, who showed the crowd the first piece of coal his father ever mined, which he now carries with him, earned (and rightfully so) the first of a handful of standing ovations at the event. Thanks to some stellar guitar work on “Stay a Little Longer,” the duo Brothers Osborne also had the audience on their feet.
Another highlight of the afternoon was Mickey Guyton, who, instead of performing the current “Better Than You Left Me,” dazzled the crowd with the brand-new “Nice Things.” She did so, in fact, after stepping back from the microphone and delivering the song with her band unplugged. And from the huge round of applause she received before she even hit the stage, it clear Guyton has already endeared herself to country radio.
Among the artists who showcased music from upcoming albums were Easton Corbin (“Be My Love Song”), Billy Currington (“Don’t It”) and Darius Rucker (“Southern Style”).
A relative veteran by now, Dierks Bentley was joined by singer-songwriters Jon Randall and Jessi Alexander, for an acoustic rendition of his hit, “Say You Do.” But the most enduring act in the UMG family of record labels has been making records for 40 years. Vince Gill was another of the few acts who earned a standing ovation before he even appeared on stage. He thanked country radio for the songs of his that they’ve played through the years and expressed understanding for those they chose not to play, too. “You gave me a belief in myself,” he said, appearing to get a bit choked up, “and you’re doing that for all these artists.” Gill then offered up a song that was likely a hit before many in attendance had even started their radio careers, the 1994 classic “Whenever You Come Around,” which, he noted, was written about the first time he saw Amy Grant, the woman who would later become his wife.
The show closed with the appearance of two of the hottest acts on the UMG roster. Eric Church, whose newborn son is less than two weeks old, prefaced his performance with the fact that he hasn’t been sleeping much lately. He then played a new song he had written about his grandfather, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease when the singer was a young boy.
Keith Urban, who was making his first-ever appearance in the history of the event, performed the yet-to-be-released “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” — a clever, uptempo number that got a rousing response. Church then returned to the stage to duet with his Aussie friend on “Raise ‘Em Up,” with Urban taking special care, for Church’s benefit, of pointing out the lyrics, “You take her by the hand, make a stand, buy some land, make some love. . . and then babies come.”
The fate of many of the songs performed during the star-packed show now rests in the hands of country radio programmers and listeners, and Universal Music Group certainly gave them a surfeit of material to choose from.