Joe Nichols Is Brightest of Country’s “New Faces”

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In an evening of good music, the laurels went to Joe Nichols and his record label, Universal South. Nichols earned the loudest applause and his label the biggest laughs at Country Radio Seminar’s New Faces Show Friday (Feb. 21), held at the Nashville Convention Center. Tammy Cochran , Steve Azar , Emerson Drive and Kellie Coffey also delivered fine performances to the large audience of radio programmers and music industry people.

“New faces” was a misnomer, of course. Nichols and Azar have been making records and music videos since at least 1996 (on the Intersound and River North labels, respectively), Cochran since 2000 and Emerson Drive since 2001. But, by country music standards, they are newer faces. Besides, when it’s your show, you can call it what you want.

As is customary, the hilarious and razor-tongued Charlie Monk hosted the event. “In honor of ZZ Top going country this year,” he said, alluding to the all-star country tribute album to the rock band, “repeat after me, ‘Haw, haw, haw!’ They’re not the only ones trying to go country. There’s also Kid Rock , Chubby Checker, Sheryl Crow and Faith Hill .” A music publisher as well as a CRS standby, Monk observed that “Nashville is the only city in the world where Wal-Mart has a writers’ night.” Turning to more specific torments, he targeted Mike Dungan, president of Capitol Records’ Nashville division: “Mike Dungan hired bomb-sniffing dogs for his building. Unfortunately, they were about six albums too late.”

Each of the five acts that performed was introduced by a specially prepared video clip, most of which took a humorous approach. Azar’s was basically about the making of his “Waitin’ on Joe” video. Emerson Drive parodied the process by which performers are costumed and choreographed to appear to be something they aren’t. Coffey’s clip played on her last name, with customers in a diner ordering their coffee/Coffey cold, hot, strong, creamy, etc., and she complied accordingly. Cochran’s took the form of a news report in which she was cloned into an array of servants useful to her record label.

But it was Nichols’ intro that brought the house down. The scene is a desert with a ribbon of blacktop stretching empty to the horizon. On one side stands a pretty girl in a pink cowboy hat and tight black pants and, on the other, a slick-looking, fancily coifed record executive telling her that her music should be “a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n’ roll.” He beckons her to come over to him, and just as she steps into the road, she is hit solidly by an enormous speeding semi with “Universal South” painted on the side. Inside the cab of the truck, dressed like goobers and laughing maniacally are Universal South’s co-chairman Tony Brown and Tim DuBois. In the wake of this carnage comes the slogan, “Stay out of the middle of the road.”

Backed by a band in which the steel guitar dominated, Nichols opened with the mournful and peevish “Brokenheartsville.” His voice was a marvel of power and intimacy, riding each lyrical nuance like a wave. (With his magnificent nose and high cheekbones, Nichols also has the best profile in country music since Dolly Parton.) He brought so much thought and tenderness to “The Impossible,” his breakthrough hit, that it was like hearing it for the first time. The audience interrupted the opening notes of this remarkable tribute to the human spirit with cheers and whistles.

Still short on self-identifying tunes, Nichols closed his set with “Farewell Party,” the song made scripture by the great Gene Watson . While Nichols’ version lacked the numb-with-despair quality that Watson imparted, it was still so sensitively done that he’s earned the right to keep it in his repertoire and to move a new generation of listeners who may never hear the original. While all the acts got a standing ovation from segments of the audience, Nichols’ finale brought almost everyone to their feet.

Repeatedly telling the crowd that he felt “new,” Azar did bring a lot of youthful energy and good humor to the stage. He rocked out with “Underdog” and showed his way with a ballad on the ominous “Waitin’ on Joe.” Demonstrating that it could be country-to-the-core when it wanted to be, Emerson Drive closed its set with a frenzied, Dionysian romp through “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” that would have had Charlie Daniels grinning and stomping his feet. Coffey’s voice soared so limitlessly that it dwarfed her generally lightweight lyrics. The exception was her lovely “When You Lie Next to Me,” an eloquent pairing of sound and sentiment. Cochran, an impressive stylist who always puts on a good show, ranged emotionally in her set from the agony of “I Cry” to the calm resolve of “Life Happened.”

All in all, it was an evening country could be proud of.

Set List

Steve Azar
“Underdog”
“One Good Reason Why”
“Waitin’ on Joe”
“I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘Til Monday)”

Kellie Coffey
“The Simple Truth”
“Whatever It Takes”
“At the End of the Day”
“When You Lie Next To Me”

Emerson Drive
“Fall Into Me”
“I Should Be Sleeping”
“Only God (Could Stop Me Loving You)”
“The Devil Went Down to Georgia”

Joe Nichols
“Brokenheartsville”
“She Only Smokes When She Drinks”
“The Impossible”
“Farewell Party”

Tammy Cochran
“I Cry”
“Life Happened”
“Love Won’t Let Me”
“Angels in Waiting”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.