Country Radio Seminar: Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, Pistol Annies and REO Speedwagon Rock the Boat
Alan Poizner for Sony Music Nashville

Above, L-R: Ashley Monroe, Pistol Annies; Kelly Clarkson; Angaleena Presley, Pistol Annies; Miranda Lambert

The General Jackson river boat was rockin’ last night as Brad Paisley welcomed surprise guests REO Speedwagon on Sony Music Nashville’s 27th annual cruise. Kelly Clarkson, Miranda Lambert, Pistol Annies, Chris Young and "X Factor" winner Tate Stevens were among the artists who performed for radio programmers, execs and media gathered for Sony’s big Country Radio Seminar showcase.

“The special thing about the boat show is the way the artists have the opportunity to connect with country radio,” Grand Ole Opry GM/VP Pete Fisher told “They don’t get a lot of opportunities to really acknowledge how important they are in helping them fulfill their dreams.”

Sara Evans, Love and Theft, Casey James, Tyler Farr and Joanna Smith were among the artists schmoozing with the predominantly radio crowd as the General Jackson cruised the Cumberland River. Young could be seen chatting with programmers and hoisting his glass for a toast as he worked the crowd right up until show time. When his turn came to take the stage, Young performed his current single, “I Can Take it From There” and “All Y’all,” which is among the new tunes he’s been working on for his next album.

L-R: Gary Overton, Sony Music Nashville chairman & CEO; Sara Evans; Blair Garner, After Midnight (Alan Poizner for Sony Music Nashville)

He took a moment to thank RCA for sticking with him despite his slow start. “When I started out, my first single failed. My second single failed. My third single failed,” he said. “But for whatever reason, RCA Records believed in me enough to send me out to see you guys again and you guys believed in me enough to play my fourth single, [“Getting’ You Home (The Black Dress Song)”] which ended up being a No. 1. Thank you so much!”

After performing his debut single, “Power of a Love Song,” Stevens, who was introduced via video by "The X Factor’s" Simon Cowell, came out to stand in the back of the theater to watch the show. He told Billboard he was particularly excited about seeing Clarkson as he’d never seen her perform live before.

Tate Stevens performs (Alan Poizner for Sony Music Nashville)

“The show tonight was really unique because artists got a chance to do things they don’t normally do like Brad Paisley performing with REO Speedwagon,” Fisher said. “For Kelly Clarkson tonight really validated how Kelly deserves to be part of this community. What she does is such a great fit for country music, and Sony did a great job at showcasing some of their new artists. The Henningsens are extraordinary.”

Paisley is also a fan and will have the newcomers as openers on his upcoming tour.  “I’ve known them since they came out this last year with the Band Perry and hung out,” he said. “Their music is incredible.”

Much of the discussion at this year’s CRS has centered on the number of strong new artists emerging in the country format and the younger audience that is embracing today’s country. “Our format is doing really well [among listeners ages] 18-34 and 25-34,” says Albright & O’Malley & Brenner’s Becky Brenner. “This new generation of kids is into the same kind of core values that country has always had, which is exciting because they are big country fans and that speaks well for the growth of our format.”

In addition to the radio folks on board, the General Jackson’s two-story Victorian Theater was populated with managers, media and exces, including Vector Management’s Ken Levitan and Michelle Owens, ShopKeeper Management’s Marion Kraft, Music Row publisher/owner Sherod Robertson, Billboard’s Wade Jessen, Huntsman Entertainment president Ron Hunstman, manager-turned-event planner Anita Hogin of H Three Events and Provident Music Group president/CEO Terry Hemmings, who helms Sony’s Nashville-based Christian music division.

Miranda Lambert performs (Alan Poizner for Sony Music Nashville)

WSIX Nashville’s midday air personality Amy Paige is a perennial boat show attendee. “People from the country radio industry are all like family,” Paige said. “We all have a connection. It’s the love of the music. That’s why everybody wants to be on this boat. You’ve got the biggest names and you get to see the rising stars. It’s exciting. You have three hours where you can just sit, listen, enjoy and catch up with friends.”

Before the music started, Evans helped hand out Radio Ink’s annual awards to programmers then the evening’s emcee, Sony Music Nashville chairman/CEO Gary Overton welcomed Miranda Lambert as the  first performer. She opened with a high-energy performance of “Mama’s Broken Heart” before welcoming her husband, Warner Music artist Blake Shelton, to join her in singing  “Over You.” The couple penned the hit single, which won the Country Music Association’s song of the year honor last November. Lambert then welcomed her fellow Pistol Annies Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley to the stage to perform “Hell on Heels” and “Hush, Hush,” a number from their upcoming album.

Overton got some help entertaining the crowd between set changes when Paisley came on stage and tried to put a life vest on him. When he couldn’t get the vest around Overton’s neck because it stuck on his head, Paisley quipped that he looked like “the most confused Green bay Packers fan.” After a few more jokes about boat safety in light of the recent Carnival Cruise disaster, Paisley helped Overton introduce the Henningsens.

The evening was filled with stellar performances. Jerrod Niemann delivered his current single “Only God Could Love You More” then had the audience singing along to his No. 1 hit “Lover, Lover.”  Clarkson wowed the crowd with her new single, “Don’t Rush,” and was joined by Jason Sellers who sang Vince Gill’s part. “He was amazing singing the demo,” Clarkson said. “I was like, ‘Holy crap! Who is that?” Clarkson welcomed the Pistol Annies back to the stage to sing back up on a new tune “Ain’t Gonna Like This.”

Brad Paisley and REO Speedwagon perform (Alan Poizner for Sony Music Nashville)

Paisley treated the crowd to two new tunes from his April 9 album, Wheelhouse. The clever “Harvey Bodine” had the crowd roaring in laughter and the new single, “Beat This Summer,” had folks swaying along to the catchy melody. Throughout the evening, Overton had been teasing the crowd about a surprise guest. When Paisley began crooning, “Heard it from a friend who heard it from a friend who heard it from another you been messin’ around” the crowd erupted as REO Speedwagon took the stage and launched into “Take It On the Run.” After the song, REO's lead vocalist Kevin Cronin commented on how the lines “between country music and rock have never been grayer” and that he could take any REO song, sit down with a guitar and play it and it would be country. “It’s all country music,” he said as the crowd cheered.

Paisley was smiling from ear to ear as his blistering guitar skills melded with the legendary rock band in what Cronin dubbed the “first performance of the REO Paisley Wagon!” It’s a tradition to have a special surprise guest on the boat show every year and as Overton and other execs were trying to find someone, Paisley stepped in two week ago and offered to call Cronin and invite REO.

It was a smart move. The crowd enthusiastically sang along on hit after hit as they performed “Music Man,” “Keep on Loving You,” “Time for Me to Fly” and “Ridin’ Out the Storm.” Evans, Young, Stevens, Niemann, Pistol Annies and the rest of the evening’s performers joined the stage for the finale “Keep on Rolling.”

“It’s just really memorable,” Play MPE VP label and radio relations Laurie Gail said. “It’s a cool thing to be on this. It captures the essence of Nashville -- the different artsy, unique vibes that Nashville has. This encapsulates it all so nicely.”