What's country music going to sound like for the rest of 2015? Universal Music Nashville's sixth annual showcase at the Country Radio Seminar, held Feb. 26 at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium, gave a pretty convincing indication that the genre could be moving away from "bro country" and back to its roots of storytelling and heartbreak -- with a welcome dose of sass thrown in for good measure.
Featuring more than a dozen performers from UMG Nashville's four core labels (Mercury, MCA, Capitol and EMI), the 90-minute showcase spanned talents brand-new (Canaan Smith, Josh Turner, Mickey Guyton), hipster-cool (Kacey Musgraves, Brothers Osborne, Chris Stapleton), on the rise (David Nail, Easton Corbin), time-tested (Darius Rucker, Little Big Town, Billy Currington, Kip Moore), arena-level (Keith Urban, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church) and even one living legend (Vince Gill).
The mood was often nostalgic and sentimental --the afternoon's only mention of a truck was on "Bronco," singer-songwriter Canaan Smith's touching tribute to his late brother, and the only remote reference to partying came courtesy of Easton Corbin's sweet "Baby Be My Love Song" (as in, "You could be my love song/ Be the buzz in my Dixie cup"). Instead, there were several dedications to dearly departed parents and grandparents, including a freshly penned number from Church that had the balcony on its feet; thematically racy odes to loves new (The Brothers Osborne's "Stay A Little Longer") and old (Little Big Town's "Girl Crush"); and one love-thy-neighbor anthem that brought the house down.
The latter was Musgraves' brand-new single "Biscuits," which will set up her just-completed second album when it ships to radio March 16 (and iTunes on March 17) and -- based on the whistling reaction from the standing-room industry crowd at the Ryman -- could finally bring Musgraves the radio love that mostly eluded her Grammy-winning debut album Same Trailer, Different Park.
That Musgraves was received so warmly could also speak to the comparative dearth of female voices on a country radio chart dominated by males (Miranda Lambert's "Little Red Wagon" is currently the only song in the Country Airplay top 25 with a lead female vocal). But perhaps the even bigger surprise was the fact that Darius Rucker and Mickey Guyton, both African-American country performers, shared a stage as priority UMG artists, a sign that the country airwaves could soon be more diverse in categories beyond just gender.
And Guyton, who drew a standing-ovation crowd at the 2013 CRS showcase before retreating to develop songs for her forthcoming Capitol Nashville debut, was cautiously confident about embracing the spotlight. "Now I'm so nervous, knowing what goes on out there," she told the crowd before introducing new song "Nice Things," "because last time I had no clue. But I'm not gonna get emotional, I'm not gonna cry my eyelashes off, I promise. All the support means so, so much to me."
The unabashed ring-kissing of country's radio programmers was a common refrain heard from even the biggest of names, with Vince Gill going so far as to say he's spent his entire 40-year career writing something with the "belie[f] it'll get played. You gave me a belief in myself, and that is a great gift to give any of the people who've played for you today," he said before playing one of his biggest hits, his Amy Grant ode "Whenever You Come Around."
Gill's mere presence intimidated even showcase-closer Keith Urban, in his CRS showcase debut. "I was sidestage listening to Vince like, 'Man, I drew the short straw.'" Such self-effacement didn't deter Urban from debuting a crowd-favored new song that referenced "John 3:16" and duetting with Eric Church on current hit "Raise Em Up," however.