Country music is in good hands.
That was the emphatic message Eric Church, Trent Tomlinson, Jack Ingram, Miranda Lambert and Rodney Atkins delivered to radio programmers attending the New Faces Show Friday night (March 2) at the Nashville Convention Center. The show was the final event of the annual Country Radio Seminar.
Perhaps because they are all rather old faces by now — at least in terms of stage experience — the five performers were all poised, confident and propelled by their own arsenal of hits and popular music videos.
The good news was the music. The bad news was the interminable stretches between sets. What could have been a tight 90-minute production instead yawned on for three and a half hours.
Singer-songwriter and American Country Countdown radio host Kix Brooks had the impossible duty of keeping the jaded crowd engaged while the stage equipment was being shifted for the next act. His stories tended to ramble rather than rivet. But he did gain some interest when he brought out veteran comedian Bill Dana (best known as the lethally clueless Jose Jiminez) and played straight man to him. Brooks also held the crowd with his solid solo rendition of Brooks & Dunn’s “Red Dirt Road” near the end of the evening.
Church’s set, the first on the show, was also the most imaginative. Instead of simply performing his hits and current single as the others did, he wove them into an account of his musical journey.
Opening with a driving, banjo-flecked rendition of “How ‘Bout You,” Church then turned to his early musical influences. He said his dad liked the Motown vibe and then illustrated his wide range of musical preferences with a swatch of The Band’s “Ophelia.” His mom, Church continued, was a bluegrass fan, which sparked a twangy sampling from “I Saw the Light.” Church noted his own musical inclination ran toward singer-songwriters. To underline the point, he offered a crowd-pleasing excerpt of Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
Church also saluted Bob Seger, with whom he has toured, and threaded in snippets of his own “Guys Like Me,” “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag” and “Two Pink Lines” before wrapping it up with a reprise of “How ‘Bout You.”
Tomlinson was magnificent. Striding into the spotlight wearing his familiar red doo-rag, a muscle shirt and jeans, he worked the stage like it was a pulpit. His voice was equally sure and commanding as he steamed through “Country Is My Rock,” “Just Might Have Her Radio On” and the delightfully dizzy “Drunker Than Me.” He briefly strode off the stage and into the audience without missing a beat or looking like he was trying too hard to connect.
The crowd broke into applause when Tomlinson, after noting that his father was in the audience, began singing the paternally inspired entreaty, “One Wing in the Fire.” He closed his set on an up-tempo note with “Hey Batter Batter.”
Unlike most of today’s country songs, which rely on the singer to stretch or compress the lyrics into a recognizable rhythm, the songs Tomlinson performed (and wrote) were as metrically complete as a Shakespearean sonnet or a great rap lyric. His facility in enunciating such a torrent of words came as a real bonus.
Ingram was low-key and stuck pretty much to his standards. He started with “Love You,” which is always fun to listen to after you’ve factored in all the right substitute words for “love” and its grammatical permutations. Afterward came “Measure of a Man,” a song he said his absentee father inspired.
Just before singing it, Ingram told of hearing Hinder’s “Lips of an Angel” as he was driving around Austin and deciding to record it because it had all the elements of a country song. He ended with “Wherever You Are,” his first No. 1.
Lambert was a blonde fireball, bopping around the stage with her Barbie-pink electric guitar. Each of the performers was introduced by a humorous video designed to tell something about his or her personality and career. Lambert’s video showed her going through anger-management therapy, a theme no doubt inspired by her incendiary single “Kerosene.” In keeping with this truculent mood, she opened with “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” the title track from her forthcoming album.
Lambert continued with “Brand New Strings” and the autobiographical “Famous in a Small Town,” which is also her next single. Naturally enough, she finished her set with “Kerosene.” It might have brought down the house had not her label president, Joe Galante, chosen that moment to come on stage and present her a platinum award for her first album. Although a proud moment for the singer, it fizzled as a finale.
By the time Rodney Atkins closed the show, almost half the crowd was gone. That was a pity. In spite of his mowing-the-lawn costume — ball cap, T-shirt and jeans — the tall, lanky Atkins proved to be a strong stage performer. He established a suitable working-stiff tone with “These Are My People” and then shifted smoothly into “Watching You,” his sober meditation on parental influence.
Bidding the audience to raise their glasses, Atkins led them in a salute to his record label and management team. He bade his farewell with “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows),” and, in doing so, earned a standing ovation from the die-hards who had stayed on.