“Snow day at the Ryman -- what could be better?” said Little Big Town’s Philip Sweet, kicking off an afternoon of music for attendees at Nashville’s annual Country Radio Seminar, as flurries accumulated on the storied Ryman Auditorium’s stained glass windows.
Country’s biggest label group, UMG Nashville, rents the room every February to put on what amounts to the best country music concert of the year, with nearly all of its acts turning up to perform one number each, often using the acoustic format and sanctified venue as reason to try out their most emotional album tracks instead of their hit rockers. Chris Stapleton, Lauren Alaina, Little Big Town, and David Nail all introduced radio programmers to unreleased ballads, while Luke Bryan, Darius Rucker, Eric Church, and Vince Gill did deep dives into their latest albums for especially resonant non-singles.
The UMG showcase carries more weight than ever during Country Radio Seminar, now that Sony Nashville has dropped its traditional “boat show” -- one of the first cost-cutting moves under Randy Goodman’s new regime. Sony did, however, put on a two-artist showcase at 3rd & Lindsley Tuesday night, drawing a crowd for Maren Morris who, with “My Church,” has become the most talked-about freshman of the moment and yet another hope for lasting tomato-dom in country.
The woman whose footsteps they’re hoping Morris follows in, Kelsea Ballerini, headlined “Indiepalooza,” a Monday night showcase that had Broken Bow, Black River, and Curb teaming up to show off their respective rosters. Later that night, Big Machine’s big showcase Monday night had Steven Tyler mixing a trio of songs from his upcoming solo country debut with a healthy amount of Aerosmith classics, albeit with country songstress Rebecca Lynn Howard instead of Joe Perry on harmonies and guitar. Warner Nashville is mostly sitting out CRS, performance-wise, though their new singing the Last Bandoleras will close out the conference at a Wednesday night after-party.
Appropriately introduced as country music’s big story of the year, Stapleton, taking the traditional Grand Ole Opry stage by himself, said that he “likes to use this room to do things that I think would sound good in this room, so I’m gonna play something not on the record. It’s about time for me to think about making another one pretty soon, and my wife always liked this song, so I’m gonna try it out on you guys, if that’s okay.” That tune, “Either Way,” was actually familiar to anyone who remembers Lee Ann Womack’s final album for Universal back in 2008. But, either way, it was bracing for many in the audience to hear Stapleton belt out such an unremittingly dark song, in country’s bleakest marital tradition: “We pass in the hall, on our way to separate rooms / The only time we talk is when the monthly bills are due… / Baby, you can go or you can stay / I won’t love you either way.” The devastating portrayal of a soon-to-be-broken home brought down the house.
Alaina followed, saying, “Whoever decided to put me after Chris Stapleton, I’m gonna make sure you get fired. What the crap?” The showcase’s host, UMG Nashville svp of promotion Royce Risser, noted that while Alaina had recorded her debut album in a couple of months after she came in second on American Idol, the label had waited more than four years to put out her forthcoming sophomore effort -- during which her father went into rehab, her mother married her dad’s best friend, and she underwent vocal surgery… while also “turning old enough to drink, so watch out.” Alaina worked all those autobiographical elements (except the drinking) into “Doing Fine,” a powerhouse number she’s also been trying out on the road.
Little Big Town’s showcase kickoff, the exquisite “The Beginning,” is also a road-tested but so-far unreleased number. “In the end you always go back to the ones who were there for you from the beginning,” sang the quartet, clearly meaning to salute their friends at country radio -- even if those radio associates had a brief dropout somewhere around third album A Place to Land.
Eric Church performed “Record Year” in recapping his own highly unorthodox year, which involved dropping Mr. Misunderstood with no advance notice the week of the CMAs. It wasn’t just fans who were surprised in November. Emcee Risser revealed: “Our own staff found out the day of, which make him the greatest secret keeper in this town.” Upon taking the stage, Church announced, “There’s a brand new album coming out tomorrow,” then took it back before he could elicit too many gasps.
Dierks Bentley was among the minority of the 16 acts who did play his current single, acknowledging that picking one from his upcoming album Black had been tough, although the wisdom of putting out “Somewhere on a Beach” as counter-programming to the weather in the dead of winter was reinforced as it provided fantasy fodder during a snowstorm. And, he promised or threatened, the whole album won’t be in that vein. “I think it’s a great way to get this album -- thanks to you guys -- quickly off to a good start,” Bentley said, “so I can get a little more heavier stuff out there.”
The most unabashedly rowdy single anyone tried out in the acoustic format was “High Class,” which found Eric Paslay doing surprisingly agile steps across the seemingly slick, wooden Ryman stage in his cowboy boots, even indulging in a bit of moonwalking. The reaction to “High Class” was loud enough, from the opening cheers of recognition to a standing ovation, that you might’ve assumed the assembled programmers had already made it a No. 1 Billboard Airplay single, instead of it still being on the rise at No. 39.
While other labels usually refrain from mentioning that singles are struggling, promo head Risser has his candid moments as an emcee every year, as when, in talking about David Nail’s current “Night’s on Fire,” he said, “Get freaking moving, radio! You know it’s a hit!” Nail seconded that notion, but chose to debut a more emotionally ambivalent song, the powerful title track of his upcoming Fighter album, which offers a somewhat more hopeful take on a turbulent marriage than Stapleton’s (“I know when you say you hate me, it ain’t what you mean…”).
Artists frequently cited the Ryman as the reason for their song choices, with superstar Luke Bryan mentioning his desire to play piano in the room for the first time as rationale for picking his very non-boot-scooting “To the Moon and Back.”
Vince Gill, as always, proved the only artist to get a standing ovation coming as well as going -- which, as he implicitly acknowledged in his remarks, doesn’t mean the veterans-averse format is guaranteed to get behind his new single, “Take Me Down.” In the last 42 years of record-making, Gill said, “I don’t think I ever had much of an expectation of getting a record played, but I never doubted I had hope that it would.” Little Big Town appears on the new single as well, telling the crowd that “we’re excited -- we’re gonna change the name of our group to LGBT. I think we’re gonna find a pretty cool audience.” The group left mid-show to catch a plane, but he attributed his change of plans in what to play less to that than to seeing Stapleton. “Watching Chris inspired me to sing this song [“Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones)”] instead... It reminded me of what it must have been like the first time people heard George Jones sing, one of the greatest country singers in the whole world.”
Notably absent from the afternoon showcase was the other massive freshman success story of the year besides Stapleton -- Sam Hunt -- but that was only because UMG had booked the Ryman for an entire late-night show for him Tuesday night. Hunt did his usual touring mixture of hip-hop inflections and massive lighting effects, but also stripped it down in a lengthy acoustic medley of oldies from the ‘90s and ‘00s, which found Charles Kelley coming out to duet on country gold like “Strawberry Wine.”
Team UMG at the Ryman setlist:
"The Beginning" -- Little Big Town
"Stuck/Iris" (Goo Goo Dolls cover) -- Canaan Smith
"Late to the Party" -- Kacey Musgraves
"So I Sang" -- Darius Rucker
"Head Over Boots" -- Jon Pardi
"The Driver" -- Charles Kelley with Dierks Bentley, Eric Paslay
"Fighter" -- David Nail
"Somewhere on a Beach" -- Dierks Bentley
"Running for You" -- Kip Moore
"High Class" -- Eric Paslay
"Either Way" -- Chris Stapleton
"Doing Fine" -- Lauren Alaina
"Record Year" -- Eric Church
"Sad One Comin’ On (A Song for George Jones)" -- Vince Gill
"To the Moon and Back" -- Luke Bryan
"Break on Me" -- Keith Urban
"John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" -- Keith Urban