Last week most of the top country radio programmers and DJs in the nation traveled to Nashville for a week of free-flowing music and beer at the Country Radio Seminar, Nashville's biggest annual industry-only confab. All the top labels hosted blowout parties or concerts for what they like to call their "radio partners" -- i.e., the sometimes fickle folks they know can make or break the careers of returning superstars as well as newcomers. Our Country was on the scene to take in all those high-profile showcases and low-key parties, too. What did we learn?
Miranda Lambert is raising her glove in victory in the Chris Brown kerfuffle. Lambert's only appearance at CRS was at a very small, private guitar pull she shared with current tour mates Chris Young and Jerrod Niemann, performing for about 100 invitees in front of a giant flag in a boutique that sells Italian boots. Inevitably, the subject of her taking on Chris Brown came up. "I don't like to start crap, and I'm not one to..." Someone yelled out, "Finish him!" Lambert responded, "I already finished it. I won!"
Faith Hill is back in it to win it. Just when you thought she was settled in for a epic retirement, Hill finally has an album coming out this year, Illusion, her first since 2005's Fireflies. There's a lot on the line, so Warner Bros. focused its promotional efforts at CRS almost entirely on giving programmers a full measure of Faith, inviting them to a Friday luncheon concert that was like an abridged version of a Hill arena show to come. Besides perennials like "Mississippi Girl," "This Kiss," and "Another Piece of My Heart," Hill debuted two never-before-heard tunes. One was "American Heart," which she went into the studio to record right after leaving the show. The other was "600 Miles" (excerpt below).
Hill said at the outset that she wouldn't do much talking, that she was there for the music. What was left unsaid was how high the stakes are for the new album and its singles, since, mostly due to her own leave of absence, Hill hasn't had a top 10 hit since "Sunshine and Summertime" in 2006. Unfortunately, her return to the scene late last year was a fizzle, as the first single off the upcoming project, "Come Home," peaked at a startlingly low No. 26 in December. Do the followup tracks have the right stuff?
When Hill opened her set with "Mississippi Girl," it was worth remembering that that represented a comeback for her after she'd been away from the scene (albeit for a far shorter amount of time at that point) and counted out after the short-on-hits Cry. She might need a tune that indelible to reinforce her superstar status, and if she's got it, we're not sure we've heard it yet. But the anthemic "American Heart" (as in: "You can't break an...") and the sweet, upbeat love song "600 Years" showed that she's not off on the wrong track, either. It would have been nice for programmers to hear at least a few words from Faith about why she's been away, what she's been up to, what hopes she has for her new music. But maybe she still wants to hold off on making those statements. It's still an intriguingly open question as to how desperately radio folks have been waiting for her to "Come Home."
Alan Jackson is still the most laid-back guy in country music. Or on the planet. The day before Hill did her luncheon showcase for the CRS attendees, Jackson did his. And though the stakes felt similar, their attitudes and approaches to winning over the programmers couldn't have been more night and day. Whereas Faith was bounding all over the stage like a woman with something to prove, Alan sat down for an ultra-casual Q&A and impromptu acoustic jam, acting like a guy with very few cares in the world. That can be deceptive, of course. When host Lon Helton pointed out that he was doing a tour of local radio stations for the first time since the early '90s, he had the honorable temerity to ask Jackson if he was afraid a guy of his stature doing that might come off as "desperate." AJ freely admitted he knew it could appear that the old dog was worried about being surpassed by the new kids... but still came off as a guy who has love of music, not pride, as a motivating factor.
But Jackson is in a somewhat similar position as Hill, as far as having had his first single off the new project stiff. Late last year, "Long Way to Go" peaked at No. 24... spookily close to the position where Faith's single met its match. The good news is, it appears as if everyone's going to pretend that that one didn't happen and pretend that his new single is the first single off the upcoming album. That one is "So You Don't Have to Love Me Any More," and it's one of the best of Jackson's career. Putting out a sad ballad at a moment when Jackson needs to reestablish himself on radio is a risky move, but the undeniable strength of the song just may cause it to pay off.
That was the only new song that Jackson played for the programmers, as he instead led them through a CRS-inspired medley of drinking songs like "Pop-a-Top" and "It's Five O'Clock Somewhere." But we've heard the entire new album, and take our word for it that it's chock full of potential singles that are waiting as potent followups whether or not the bet on "...Love Me Anymore" succeeds. Here's what you can count on: Whether the new album (due in May) fizzles or results in a string of No. 1s, Jackson will be just as laconic either way.
Vince Gill is a mensch. Universal Nashville held a showcase for most of their roster at the historic Ryman Auditorium, and they reserved one of the final slots on the bill for Gill... who announced he wasn't on the roster anymore. "I'm no longer with MCA Universal," he declared. "It's the first time in 30 years I haven't had a record deal." He'd spent the last quarter-century of those years with the same company, so this felt seismic... if not unexpected, given the trouble that all labels have selling records for veteran artists, however great and critically acclaimed Gill's still are. There was no talk about what was behind the split, but what was startlingly clear was that both Gill and the Universal staff have a lot of heart to commemorate their tenure and breakup with one last song together. You don't see that every day, folks.
Carrie Underwood is a rock & roll queen. Every year, Sony Nashville takes programmers on a cruise along the Cumberland River while the top artists on their roster do a couple of songs, and every year, Underwood knocks it out of the park. Or at least out of the boat. This year was no exception, as Underwood gave a few hundred shipbound radio folks an exclusive live premiere of "Good Girl," at the exact same moment the studio version was being emailed to the stations back home. As fans now know by now, too, it's the hardest, loudest rocker she's ever done. ("Slayer, take the wheel"? Well, not quite that hard.)
Underwood's garb seemed designed to showcase both her sides: the ripped black stockings and blue hot pants representing the bad girl, the pinstripe jacket representing the good girl. This being Carrie, good still triumphs over evil. But it was nice to hear those loud guitars (and see those after-a-night-on-the-town leggings) standing in for the other side.
Kellie Pickler has the most adorable potty mouth. Pickler co-hosted the Sony boat show, along with Sara Evans. There was some talk about how all the women on the stage that night had fared in a recent Country Weekly poll of sex appeal: Evans had been awarded best butt, Underwood best legs, and Pickler best chest. Eventually Pickler stood next to (the much, much taller) Evans and told a story about a boyfriend who'd worshipped Sara, leading Kellie to dye her hair and change her style of dress and do everything humanly possible to look like the"Suds in the Bucket" singer. The dark hair "looked s----y," said Pickler. "I tried to make him happy, but f--- him."
That wasn't Pickler's first salty moment of the night."I think we learned tonight why they asked me and not Kellie Pickler to host the CMA Awards," quipped Underwood.
Kix Brooks wants his day job back. Brooks hasn't exactly been biding his time since the breakup of Brooks & Dunn, even though Ronnie beat him out of the solo gate by a year. He hosts a countdown show, and chances are the guy makes more money doing that than he ever will as a recording artist again, the way the business is going. "I hate to get greedy," he told the radio assembled, "but I'd really like for you to let me sing on the radio, too."
Saying he felt a little tentative about going out on his own "after all those years with that skinny guy," Brooks nonetheless reminded the audience of a bit of trivia -- that "we were solo acts before we met 20 years ago." How does he cut it as one now? Although his voice sounded a little strained on the boat -- maybe from all that counting down? -- Brooks debuted two pretty potent numbers. One was "Baby, Let's Do This Thing," a wedding song so raucous it could only be played at true redneck nuptials (key line: "Don't you pass out on me"). The other was his first single off the upcoming album, "Wish I Was New to This Town." Though it's not ostensibly about Nashville or the music industry, Brooks was smart enough to point out the parallels.
The top labels are playing an intriguing game of executive musical chairs. It was Thursday evening when the news got out: Capitol Nashville chief Mike Dungan is moving over to become the head of Universal, and current Universal top dog Luke Lewis will be stepping aside -- voluntarily, from every informed indication. What got almost lost in the initial rush of news is that there's an EMI/Universal merger in the works, which would mean that Dungan would be back in charge of Capitol at some point in the near future, if the deal is approved.
But what will happen at Capitol at the meantime, without the well-liked Dungan around to steer the ship? It was probably no coincidence that the news leaked right after Dungan's introduction of Alan Jackson at that Thursday luncheon performance, where he said it was one of his proudest professional moments to be able to introduce Alan as a Capitol-affiliated act. By the time the news was on everyone's lips, Dungan and Lewis had both fulfilled their duties for the week and weren't around to answer questions.
The Mavericks will have the hottest comeback of 2012. Maybe not the hottest sales-wise. But there was no performance all week more fiery than the one by the Mavericks, reunited for the first time since 2003, in one of those hell-freezes-over reconciliations. Their show at the Mercy Lounge was for CRS attendees only, even though everyone in the alt-country world in Nashville was desperate to get in. Though Americana might seem like their most natural format at this point, it was clear that this is a passion project for the mogul who signed them -- Big Machine big guy Scott Borchetta, who used to work with them in their MCA days. It's clear that Borchetta wants their projected summer release to work at mainstream country radio. And since all the radio-voted CRS awards for label promotion guys went to Big Machine's execs, they are the guys to reestablish the Mavericks in the country firmament, if anyone can.
Three names to remember: Chris Stapleton, Kacey Musgraves, and Thomas Rhett. We saw a lot of newcomers during CRS week, but three in particular stood out. At the Big Machine blowout at the 3rd & Lindsley club, it became evident that Thomas Rhett -- the son of country artist-turned-songwriter Rhett Akins -- has a rowdy hit on his hands with "Something to Do With My Hands." At the Universal showcase at the Ryman, meanwhile, two freshman artists earned standing ovations, something a lot of more established acts didn't. Stapleton is a former frontperson for the bluegrassy Steeldrivers who's recording a solo debut (even though he could probably survive off the royalties from Adele having covered one of his songs), and his soulful pipes brought the house down. Musgroves is a young Texan who wrote Miranda Lambert's "Mama's Broken Heart" and got a standing O on the strength, more than anything, of her lyrics. Remember, you heard about 'em here first.
- Faith Hill
- Miranda Lambert
- Alan Jackson