New Faces? Depends on Your Point of View

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Five comparatively “new” faces closed the 33rd Country Radio Seminar with the annual New Faces of Country Music concert Saturday night (March 2) before a capacity crowd in the Performance Hall of the Nashville Convention Center at the Renaissance Hotel.

The New Faces show has for years — both as the convention’s closing event and as an industry showcase for new talent — been one of the CRS’ most popular features. New Faces show artists were formerly picked by an industry panel. After some new faces began to be chosen that had decidedly been around for a while, charges arose along Music Row that certain record labels were exerting undue pressure on the selection process.

This year, the participants were chosen by vote of last year’s CRS registrants. The five artists chosen are in varying degrees “new” to country music, but they are certainly not musical virgins. As opening act Blake Shelton himself said during his set, “This is my third annual CRS debut. I think I know every one of you out there.”

Shelton’s set was by far the best received of the evening. That may have been in part due to his opening video, which dealt with a convention in-joke. Due to peculiar optics in the Renaissance Hotel’s atrium, reflections from inside certain rooms — with windows opening on the atrium — can be seen throughout the atrium. At a recent CRS convention, a disc jockey fell victim to those peculiar optics while performing an act of self-gratification in his room. He first realized that fact when he heard tumultuous applause coming up from the lobby below. Shelton’s video more or less re-created that moment.

He proved himself a seasoned performer, musically, however, delivering a short but solid set including “Every Time I Look at You” and his hit songs “Austin” and “All Over Me.” In introducing his next single “Old Red,” he said, “Hoyt Axton sang me this song on his bus seven years ago. It’s a love story about a prison dog named Old Red.”

Carolyn Dawn Johnson told the crowd a story of how — as an unsigned artist — she paid her own way to come to CRS in 1995 and was sitting in the New Faces audience as Bryan White sang “Someone Else’s Star.” “That just killed me,” she said. “I thought ’how do I get there?’ Well, here I am. Thank you.” Johnson’s set was made up of cuts from her debut album Room With a View, closing with her current single “I Don’t Want You to Go.”

Darryl Worley said he had advised the other artists backstage not to be nervous. “They’ve all been drunk all week,” he said he told them about the conventioneers. “The ones that haven’t been drunk all week we’ll take out after the show tonight and get them drunk.” He paid tribute to the late Waylon Jennings and then delivered a barrage of his hits to an enthusiastic reception. He introduced one of those hits, “Second Wind,” by saying, “This should have been a No. 1 hit.” He also said that he has coined a new nickname for Blake Shelton: “Spankee.” Worley closed with his new single “I Miss My Friend,” with its new video playing simultaneously on giant screens.

Cyndi Thomson sashayed onstage in tight jeans cut so low that a single false move could have resulted in an arrest for indecent exposure but in her wide-eyed, girlish way thanked all of country radio for her appearance on New Faces. “I’ve dreamed about this ever since I was a little girl,” said Thomson. She followed two album cuts and a quasi-rap song with her hit “What I Really Meant to Say.”

Rascal Flatts ’ opening video was another convention in-joke and played off the rock parody film Spinal Tap. It showed the trio congratulating themselves on finally making it on the New Faces show, only to discover they were actually at the wrong venue. They were turned away by backstage guards at the Wildhorse Saloon — where they actually played a rival concert last year after being turned down by the 2001 New Faces show. (Worley was also on that rival show.) The clip showed them next racing up Broadway to the Renaissance Hotel, then cut away as the trio charged breathlessly though the convention crowd to gain the stage.

After that, their closing set was fairly anticlimactic, but the group worked hard, churning through a song list including their hits “Praying for Daylight” and “I’m Movin’ On.”

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