Country music doesn’t have a lot of superstar singer/songwriters who also happen to double as guitar heroes, but all three figures that fall into that rarefied category ended up trading licks Thursday at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Keith Urban was closing out a Universal Nashville showcase with “Blue Ain’t Your Color” when he was joined for an epic instrumental coda by Chris Stapleton and Vince Gill. Where Johnny Cash once kicked out the footlights, it was the jams that were suddenly being kicked out.
Ironically, this electric finale was the conclusion of what was supposed to be an all-acoustic show, Universal’s eighth annual Ryman showcase for Country Radio Seminar attendees. But there were few purists complaining about the introduction of not-so-hollow-bodied guitars to cap off a concert that had normally big-production performers like Luke Bryan and Sam Hunt keeping it quiet.
Urban first reprised the salute to 2016’s fallen music stars that became a viral video when he did it at a New Year’s Eve show, bleeding George Michael into Leonard Cohen into Glenn Frey into David Bowie into Merle Haggard into Prince. Following it up with “Blue Ain’t Your Color” (which recently topped Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart for 12 weeks), the sharing extended to the living with the surprise appearances by Stapleton and Gill, who’d done their own songs earlier. But if he was in any danger of being overshadowed by his guests, Urban had a trick up his sleeve: while the other two stuck mostly with blues licks befitting the song title, Urban broke into a Ryman-rattling rock fuzztone solo.
CRS attendees had just walked over from a presentation by Garth Brooks that ended with the superstar candidly beseeching radio programmers to play his new single and pretend it was still 1992. But right now, it’s Luke Bryan who’s having his own Garth-in-’92 moment, and he acknowledged his enviable position with country radio as he opened the UMG showcase with “Fast,” currently up to No. 9 on Country Airplay. “Seeing the young artists back there sweating and getting ready to come out here. I remember how fun that time was (for me), and how nerve-wracking,” he said, still surprised to be “in this position where I write a song and I’m like, ‘Gosh, this thing really will probably go on my record, and hopefully radio will like it and they’ll probably just play it! Just like that!’”
Dierks Bentley played an album track he indicated probably would never become a single, “Can’t Be Replaced.” He baited the crowd with how “it’s a dream to get a standing ovation at the Ryman CRS show… It’s tough to get with a daytime crowd and not doing a big hit.” But, he said, bringing on the world’s most celebrated dobro player, Jerry Douglas, “might help with a standing ovation.
He added, “We’re doing a song that talks about my dog, Jake, who passed away last year, so that might get me a sympathy ovation… I just came off my 14th nomination but no win at the Grammys, so (an ovation) is gonna redeem my life.” He got one, likely even on merit and not just suggestion.
The CRS crowd is traditionally a little stingy on standing Os, awarding two or three at the showcase every year; this time around, a surprising recipient was Lauren Alaina, who’s run into some bumps in the road in the six years since her run on American Idol but suddenly finds herself with her first real radio hit. Rather than play that breakthrough, though, she won the house over with a radio-themed album track, “Three,” which offers the lyrical hook: “Six years of missing home for three minutes on the radio.” The coda changes that to “Six years of missing home, but I’d spend 50 more gone for three minutes on the radio.” The programmers and DJs leaped to their feet with an ovation that had at least as much to do with Alaina’s bravura performance as her offer of a human sacrifice.
The two biggest newly minted stars of the format offered a study in contrasts with their new songs. Sam Hunt noted that he’s “getting married in a couple months, so between planning a wedding and keeping my fiancé smiling, I’m trying to kick up some new music for y’all” — represented here by his currently rising album teaser “Body Like a Back Road,” an unguardedly sexual, honeymoon-friendly slow burner. Chris Stapleton previewed his May sophomore album with a country death ballad, “Broken Halos,” saying, “I recorded this song the day a friend of mine passed away from pancreatic cancer. He was the same age as me…”
After that sex and death came religion… albeit a religion reluctantly arrived at. “I thought I’d sing the newest song I’ve written,” said Gill. “I’m not going for adds. It’s just a sweet song.” The “somewhat vulnerable” ballad he unveiled, “When My Amy Prays,” reflects how he and spouse Amy Grant “grew up in completely different worlds. She grew up being in the church house two or three times a week, and I grew up in beer joints.” It’s part of that unique subgenre of quasi-interfaith country songs, charting the romantic intersection between the more spiritually attuned and the skeptics who lovingly enter their orbit.
“Fast” — Luke Bryan
“If I Told You” — Darius Rucker
“Heartache on the Dance Floor” — Jon Pardi
“Can’t Be Replaced” — Dierks Bentley
“More Girls Like You” — Kip Moore
“Three” — Lauren Alaina
“A Girl Like You” — Easton Corbin
“Hometown Girl” — Josh Turner
“You Look Good” — Lady Antebellum
“Do I Make You Wanna” — Billy Currington
“Body Like a Back Road” — Sam Hunt
“Broken Halos” — Chris Stapleton
“When My Amy Prays” — Vince Gill
Medley: “Careless Whisper”/’”Hallelujah”/”Take It Easy”/”Heroes”/”Mama Tried”/”Purple Rain” — Keith Urban
“Blue Ain’t Your Color” — Urban with Stapleton and Gill