Surprise number one at Sony Nashville's annual showboat concert for country radio programmers Thursday night: an appearance by Kelly Clarkson. Surprise number two: Pistol Annies as her backup singers.
Kelly Clarkson, second from left, with Pistol Annies Ashley Monroe, Angaleena Presley, and Miranda Lambert (Photo …Clarkson's affection for the Annies is no surprise, given that she's done a stellar cover of their "Hell on Heels" in concert that you can find on YouTube. But the few hundred radio folks in attendance on the General Jackson boat still got a shock when Clarkson brought out Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe, and Angaleena Presley as her version of the Ikettes.
"Unfortunately, you ain't gonna like this!" she announced over the opening power chords. Fortunately, that was the title of the new song she was debuting, and not an actual threat. The tune name-checks at least a good number of her musical heroes, and does brashly declare that if you don't care for them, you'll get on the fightin' side of her. Sample lyrics: "If you don't like Bonnie, if you don't like Prince.../If you don't like B.B., if you don't like Vince.../You ain't gonna like this." Best line: "If you don't like Aretha/Well, I don't even wanna meetcha!"
Clarkson and Pistol Annies (Photo by Chris Willman)Before Clarkson made her appearance at the annual "boat show" for select Country Radio Seminar guests, Pistol Annies debuted a new song of their own, a hard-rocking Christmas-time song—perhaps not to be confused with an actual Christmas song—that's destined to become a disaffected holiday perennial.
The trio penned the fast-paced "Hush Hush" after they and their friends reconvened following the holidays, said Lambert, with everyone "talking about how horrible it was." They may not want their families to know they inspired this corrosive tune, but "the truth will set you free," as Lambert said. The lyrics describe a brother who just got out of rehab, a dad who can't stop talking about "the end of days," and a family gathering where "everyone's walking on eggshells, drinking eggnog." Sings Miranda in her middle verse: "We were sitting at the dinner table and we were eating our pumpkin pie/While the sugar-coated dirty little secret was eating everybody alive." The solutions for this family dysfunction? "Hi-i-ide your tattoo, put on your Sunday best, pretend you're not a mss, be the happy family in the front pew," and also, as Monroe relates, "I snuck behind the red barn and I took myself a toke."
At last, the successor to Robert Earl Keen's "Merry Christmas From the Family"! Presumably coming to you in the warm months before summer, on the Annies' imminent second album.
Brad Paisley debuted an equally amusing narrative song from his soon-to-drop release. "This is for every unhappily married man here tonight," he told the crowd, and then acoustically played the bittersweet ballad of a man who flatlines on the operating table—and finds that "those five minutes were heaven, a peace unlike he'd ever known," because he had found an escape from the screaming and yelling of his abusive spouse. The punchline, if you don't mind a spoiler, comes when the revived protagonist calls his lawyer and priest and reminds them that his marital vows only applied "till death do we part."
After he performed that and a full-band version of his just-released single, "Beat This Summer," Paisley sang a snippet of an REO Speedwagon song, only to be gently shoved aside on stage by Kevin Cronin, whom it turned out he'd invited to come to the boat show a couple of weeks prior. The set ended with the other REO members emerging for a joint session that Cronin called "the REO-Paisley Wagon," with Paisley peeling off some leads on a few '70s oldies while Clarkson, Monroe, Sara Evans, and others sang backup.
"I'm here to tell you that the lines between country and rock & roll have never been greater," announced Cronin, in a Spinal Tap-esque bit of misspeak. But we knew what he meant. "Brad said he figured most of y'all started out spinning our records back in the '70s and '80s," as former rock jocks, "so it's not that unfamiliar—I get it." He added that it had "been on my bucket list to hear a banjo on 'Ridin' the Storm Out.' Now I can die in peace." Much like the protagonist of Paisley's new tune?