"Howdy, [expletives]!" hollered Gwyneth Paltrow, introducing herself to a crowd of radio programmers and executives. "Tim told me to say that," she added, somewhat apologetically, "and I do everything Tim says... almost."
You can't say the gamine actress isn't game. Or that she's done with Nashville yet. Thursday night, Paltrow hosted the 25th annual Sony Nashville "boat show," a private performance showcase and dinner cruise held on a Nashville river showboat for visiting radio dignitaries. It's always the hottest ticket in town during the yearly Country Radio Seminar, even when it isn't being hosted by one of Hollywood's most talked-about leading ladies.
The evening began with a big surprise, as Tim McGraw—not a Sony artist—popped on stage to reprise his Country Strong soundtrack duet of "Me and Tennessee" with Paltrow. The night ended with an arguably even bigger shocker, as Brad Paisley premiered his upcoming single, "Old Alabama," and was three minutes into it when he was joined by... yes, the disbanded group Alabama, reunited for Paisley's homage.
"Me and Tennessee," which was pseudonymously penned by Paltrow's (not present) husband, Chris Martin, is the best song on the Country Strong soundtrack, and it was a pleasure getting to see the two duet partners trade verses on it in the flesh, since they never sing together in the film. After McGraw left the stage, Paltrow got very, very serious as she asked the audience to keep a secret. "The head of Tim's record label, Mr. Curb, did not know he did that. Please promise me, I beg you, don't tell Mr. Curb!"
The plea may not have been 100 percent in jest: McGraw has made no secret of having butted heads with Curb Records for years. On the other hand, Sony and Curb have reportedly reached an agreement to jointly work "Me and Tennessee" as a country radio single in the coming months, so McGraw's label may not mind his promotional moonlighting that much.
Paisley first appeared on stage early in the show, introduced by Paltrow as one of her Hollywood friends, "Charlie Sheen." "So, Charlie, I'm a little worried about you," she said. "Are you okay? Are you on drugs?" "Uh, no. Yes! I'm on a drug that's called Brad Paisley!" They then engaged in some banter about "winning" and "goddesses" before Paisley finally took their routine off-script, joking, "They wanted us to kill some time, and we're killing it dead." Paisley proceeded to stumblingly introduce his labelmate Sara Evans, admittedly getting mixed up about whether her album was already out or forthcoming, prompting Paltrow to affectionately blurt: "You suck at this!"
There was some seriousness to their exchange, too, as Paisley took the moment to ask whether she'd be recording any more music. Paltrow has said she's talked with record labels, and some observers wondered if she might choose last night to announce she was signing with Sony. But this was no setup, and the actress hedged in this impromptu interview. "You know, I don't know. I've done another couple of Glee episodes, so I got to sing on Glee... I would like to. I've had an amazing year doing all of this, and anyway, this is a good opportunity to thank you guys for letting me in a little bit."
Paisley then waxed serious, too, saying, "We are so honored to have you. I speak from a little bit of experience, having a house in California; out there, we're not taken seriously all that much in country music, and for somebody like yourself to pay us the respect you have means a lot."
Paltrow went above and beyond in the service of paying respect Thursday night, even reading a litany of scripted inside jokes about the radio industry and individual DJs. "So how about our 20 most influential radio programmers?" she asked, shortly after some awards were handed out. "We wanted to give each of them a chance to come up here and say something, but as all of you know, it's a PPM world, and nobody will stay tuned in during all that talking." Ba-du-dum.
Some of the acts that followed, particularly the young male ones, were openly flustered at being introduced by Paltrow (who said "He is FINE!" of Jake Owen)... though that wasn't a problem during the show's second half, during which she pretty much disappeared, much like Ricky Gervais at the Golden Globes. She did have one additional comedy moment, though, when a Sony executive dressed in an outlandishly colorful, feathered costume, a la Cee-Lo at the Grammys, prompted her to sing a line from "Forget You," which he answered by singing the non-"forget" version of the title. "Sorry, wrong format," he apologized.
Among the highlights:
* On an acoustic stage that was set up in the rear of the showboat's theater, Jerrod Niemann sang "What Do You Want," accompanied by a nicely understated Carrie Underwood on backing vocals. "I can scratch that off my bucket list," marveled Niemann.
* Carrie sang two big hits on the main stage, "Undo It" and a "Jesus Take the Wheel"/"How Great Thou Art" medley. Her propensity for getting seasick has been a running joke on the boat show over the years; this time, she said, "I'm on my Dramamine. I ditched the [nausea-preventing] wristbands, though." Underwood was also given a plaque for scanning 2 million units of Play On.
* Jake Owen sang an upcoming single about "a Southern blue jean barefoot night," with the memorable chorus line, "We were shining like lighters in the dark in the middle of a rock show."
* Sara Evans sang two numbers from her new album, noting her absence from the scene after getting remarried. "I never thought in a million years I would take such a break. I have seven kids now, so for the last two years, I've just been trying to get caught up on the laundry. It's folded and put away, so here I am."
* Josh Thompson, on the acoustic stage, sang a new song whose chorus was appropriate to the river setting: "If I could trade the lies you told for gold, I swear I'd be on a boat somewhere." During the song, he quipped, "This is where Brad Paisley does a solo. I haven't actually asked him yet."
* Four impressive freshman artists were introduced, including all-female quartet the Lunabelles, singer and slide guitarist Casey James, and Paisley protegee Brent Anderson.
The one who had attendees chattering the most, though—and who even got a partial standing ovation—was a John Rich discovery from Alabama named Bradley Gaskin. You will be hearing this name again. Rich and one of his partners purportedly found the small-town singer by surfing unsigned artists on the Internet. The redheaded newcomer arrived on the acoustic stage and proceeded to practically blow the boat out of the water with a solo rendition of his "Mr. Bartender," which sounded like a long-lost honky-tonk classic. Gaskin seems like he stepped right out of the Hank Williams era, and it's hard to imagine a major label having found a place for him, or that radio would play something that traditional by anyone whose name isn't George Strait—but the force of his talent is such that he (and Sony, and radio) might just get away with it.
* Paisley talked about finishing up his new album, to be titled This is Country Music, and handing it in to the label last week. "I have tried as we made this record to pay tribute in many ways to things I grew up listening to. I'm gonna play you the next single off that right now. You'll be getting this very, very soon." He didn't say what the title of the song was, but as he sang it, it soon became clear that it pays tribute to one act in particular.
"Well, forget about Sinatra and Coltrane.../ Barry White ain't gonna work tonight/If you really want to turn her on..." It seems that "her idea of a romantic night is listening to old Alabama/Driving through Tennessee/A little Dixieland light at the right time of the night/And she can't keep her hands off of me."
Three minutes into the song, the stage suddenly became an Alabama reunion, and after adding a bit of "Mountain Music" to Paisley's randy song (randy as in sexy and randy as in Randy Owen), they followed up with—more than appropriately—"Tennessee River." By then the boat had docked, but Paisley called them out for an encore, requesting the classic heartbreak ballad "Lady Down on Love."
Which, come to think of it, might make for an interesting cover choice on Paltrow's first solo album, if she's ever going to stop teasing us and just announce one already.