By the time the New Faces show comes around to conclude each year’s Country Radio Seminar, the conventioneers have been so deluged by live music from superstars that it takes an astounding level of fresh talent to get them excited. None of the five acts that played the New Faces show Friday night (Feb. 17) at the Nashville Convention Center reached this level, but all gave first-rate performances.
Spotlighted were RCA Records’ Jeff Bates, Arista’s Keith Anderson, MCA’s Hot Apple Pie, Broken Bow’s Jason Aldean and Equity’s Little Big Town. The acts were “new” only by the most elastic of definitions since all had scored hits and two were on their second albums. Comedian T. Bubba Bechtol hosted the proceedings, with an assist from veteran music publisher and broadcaster Charlie Monk.
Each act was introduced by a video filmed especially for this occasion. Bates was edited into sexy scenes from Desperate Housewives; Anderson shared his burden of being a “hunk” with a solicitous Dr. Phil; Hot Apple Pie endured a withering performers’ boot camp; Aldean vowed never to change who he is as success transported him into increasingly lush surroundings; and Little Big Town made pig noises as they shuffled around the squalid “boondocks” that their first hit celebrated.
Bates opened the show with fragments from “Long Slow Kisses,” “I Wanna Make You Cry” and “The Love Song,” all selections from his 2003 album, Rainbow Man. He dramatically complained that he had such a great band backing him that he seldom gets the opportunity to play himself. With that, he strapped on an electric guitar and shouted, “Tonight, I’m gonna pick.” Suiting actions to his words, he blazed into the cautionary tale, “That’ll Get You Ten,” from his current album, Good People.
Next, Bates sang his new single, “No Shame.” He wrapped up his set with a rousing cover of Billy “Crash” Craddock’s 1974 chart topper, “Rub It In.” As he did, a procession of “bathing beauties” strutted out onto the stage and down into the audience, undulating through the tables and randomly draping leis around compliant necks. Two bikini-clad specimens of good health remained on stage to bracket Bates with bumps and grinds.
Anderson kicked off his segment with the raucously boastful “XXL.” He followed with “Every Time I Hear Your Name” and then amped up the proceedings again with “Three-Chord Country and American Rock & Roll” (which is also the title of the album from which all his songs came). He rounded out his part of the evening with his first hit, “Pickin’ Wildflowers.”
Even before Hot Apple Pie took the stage, the crowd had dined on miniature hot apple pies for dessert, and there was a place card at each plate saying, “This space reserved for Hot Apple Pie.” Led by Brady Seals, formerly of Little Texas, the four-man band seized the audience’s attention with the first song (and the band’s first single), “Hillbillies (Love It in the Hay).”
Seals switched from guitar to keyboards for the lilting and earnest “Easy Does It,” which, he announced, will be HAP’s next single. The band concluded with a breakneck cover of The Band’s “The Shape I’m In.” Bassist Keith Horne stepped in for some dazzling flatpicking on acoustic guitar, and Seals bopped from guitar to keyboards to harmonica. This display of versatility and energy earned the band a standing ovation. (The other bandsmen were Mark “Sparky” Matejka on guitar and Trey Landry on drums. The album is Hot Apple Pie.)
Although dressed like a cowboy, Aldean paced the stage like a rock god. The volume of his music was close to overwhelming as he roared through four songs from his self-titled debut album, starting with the impassioned “You’re the Love I Wanna Be In” and moving on to the cinematic “Amarillo Sky.”
“I’ve been sitting back there in the corner the last six years watching this thing,” Aldean told the crowd. “I can say now that I’ve had a hit and a half.” So saying, he launched into his “half” hit, “Why,” which is still climbing up the charts, and clinched the set with a jam-extended version of his full-fledged hit, “Hicktown.”
The crowd also warmed quickly to Little Big Town, aware that this was the band’s second attempt to gain traction at radio. (Its first album, a self-titled project in 2002 for Sony, fizzled.) Trading off lead vocals, the group breezed through “Good as Gone,” “Bones” and “Bring It on Home” before introducing its closing number.
Karen Fairchild (the dark-haired one) said that at a recent show she overheard two girls talking about them. One said, “Come on. Get in line. We’re going to meet the band.” The other girl snapped, “I’m not getting’ in their line. They’ve only got one damn song.” “So,” said Fairchild, “thank you for our one damn song.” LBT then rolled into its swampy, career-catapulting “Boondocks,” and the audience clapped along. (The other band members are Kimberly Roads, Jimi Westbrook and Philip Sweet. Their current album is The Road to Home.)
While there was never the loud and sustained applause that signifies great enthusiasm, the audience was attentive to and appreciative of every act. Monk, as usual, was the soul of sarcasm, skewering many of the Seminar’s bigwigs by name and riffing on Brokeback Mountain and the Vice President Cheney hunting accident. “I’d rather go hunting with Dick Cheney,” he insisted, “than accept a ride from Ted Kennedy.” He said that Brokeback Mountain has inspired a Broadway musical, “Oklahomo,” with the Tim McGraw theme song, “The Cowboy in Me.”
This was Bechtol’s second year as master of ceremonies — and many continue to wonder why, given the fact that his humor has nothing to do either with country music or radio. Most of his jokes centered on his being grossly overweight, a tack that becomes wearisome after awhile, even when his observations are genuinely funny. One joke invoked a demeaning Jewish stereotype and caused more than one gasp in the crowd.
Otherwise, it was a pleasant ending to CRS.