When it comes to up-and-coming country, the bloom is on the rose. Or, actually, the magnolia—Steel Magnolia, that is, the duo that represents one of the genre's more refreshing recent success stories. Their rousing set at the New Faces show helped bring down the curtain on the 25th annual Country Radio Seminar, and you can only hope the hundreds of radio programmers and disc jockeys on hand were inspired to say "Ooh La La" (to quote one of the couple's song titles) and renew their support.
"Country radio is the gateway to the fans," said Joshua Scott Jones, back on their bus after the performance, "and it's like you're part of the club when you're on this show. That means they've accepted you—as long as you don't go out there and really mess up," he laughed. "There's a lot of nerves going on before the show, but you've got to turn all that off and think of it as another show for the fans. Because in a sense, radio has become your fans, even though it's a partnership."
Country radio has a peculiar relationship to the "new." There's a recognition that fresh transfusions are necessary to keep the format alive, but also—in this most musically conservative of genres—a deep reluctance to sacrifice any precious air slots to untested newcomers that could be given to the most tried-and-tested stars. So winning any kind of freshman honor in the format, especially one that's voted by radio people, is kind of akin to being the one spawning salmon that started out at the ocean and made it hundreds of miles inland. Odds don't come much tougher.
CRS always climaxes with its closest thing to an awards show for performers—the much-anticipated New Faces show, which features the five freshman acts that radio programmers and DJs voted to come play for them. Too many times lately, the bill has been dominated by a slate of young male singers, with women and bands having a harder time breaking through in the voting. But this year's top five proved a reasonably diverse lot, with Steel Magnolia and the Band Perry both sporting breakout female vocalists, in addition to likelier suspects Jerrod Niemann, Josh Thompson, and Lee Brice. (Easton Corbin was also voted onto the show early on, but he backed out for another commitment and was replaced.)
"I think it's interesting that the diversity is coming from Scott's labels," said Jones, referring to Scott Borchetta. "We're grateful to be there and not feel like we're put in a box and not able to do what we love to do creatively." Steel Magnolia and the Band Perry both belong to the Big Machine label group, the indie that's been willing to take some chances the so-called "majors" aren't. Rather than be rebuffed for it, Big Machine's promo people also won awards voted by the radio folks. Among the acts on the still relatively modest Big Machine/Universal Republic/Valory roster, besides these newcomers: Taylor Swift, Jewel, and recent veteran additions Reba and Martina McBride. While the tide always seems to favor young hunks, you get the impression that Scott Borchetta actually likes women, God bless him.
But, of course, Steel Magnolia is but half-female. Pretty much all of their songs are duets—as befitting an act that first came to fame on CMT's Can You Duet?, though there's certainly nothing else about the climate that would make that fact obvious. There is a rich tradition in country music of men and woman trading verses, but not so much lately, and almost never full-time. The old maxim says that country music is about storytelling, and if that's true, it's a wonder we don't get to hear men and women sharing the same story more often. All gender-study theorizing aside, it also happens to be sexy as hell.
"It feels a lot better this year," Meghan Linsey said of their latest CRS experience. "We feel like we belong this year. Last year was very nerve-wracking, not really knowing everybody."
"Well," added Jones, "three years ago we were sneaking into the CRS events just go to the Bridge Bar and try to hand our CDs out to the radio programmers." (The Bridge Bar is the area of the host hotel where more alcohol is consumer per capita for four days than at any nexus on earth.) "And we didn't realize that that doesn't really work. You don't know these things until you're on the other side of it... Also, it's funny—three or four years ago, they had a 'Can You Duet' booth as a promotion for the show, and you can go in there and sing karaoke, and I got in there and sang a song and they gave me a recording of it. This was a year before we even got on that show."
"We still have the CD at our house that says 'Can You Duet: Josh Jones'—a recording of him singing, by himself," Linsey laughed. "It's kind of ironic."
Right now they're coming off a Blake Shelton tour and ready to focus on their second album, praying it doesn't take as long to get out as the first one.
"I can't wait to make the next record, man," says Jones. "We're going to take our time a little more making this one. The first record, we thought we were going to release last February, because of having come right off the show. So we recorded it very quick—and then we didn't release it until January of this year. This time I want to take a couple months and just go for it and be more fully a part of the process. I don't want to be out doing promotion while the record's being made!
"It's gonna be more mature than this one. The first one was very left of center, and this next one is going to be right down the center. I think it's almost going to be more country-sounding—like, rootsy—but with a new spin on it, of course. And the songwriting is going to be very relationship-intensive."
As in, about their relationship? Yep. "I think once you feel accepted," said Linsey, "as far as radio and fans, you feel comfortable with letting more out. You're a little more vulnerable in the writing. Some of the songs we've been writing and very close to our hearts and very much about our relationship." Cue a nervous but not necessarily ominous laugh.