Spotlighting the already proven talents of Taylor Swift, Jake Owen, Luke Bryan, Jason Michael Carroll and Bucky Covington, the New Faces show Friday night (March 7) was a resounding demonstration that country music is still in good hands.
The event, which capped the 39th annual Country Radio Seminar, was held in a hangar-size banquet hall at the Nashville Convention Center before an audience of several hundred radio and music industry people. Some in the crowd slipped away soon after dinner, hoping to avoid an approaching snowstorm. But most stayed on through the last song.
Host Charlie Monk opened the proceedings, as usual, with a torrent of comical barbs aimed at radio and record company targets.
In years past, each New Faces act was introduced by a humorous video. This time around, the videos tended to be straightforward and biographical. Swift’s clip recalled the fabled “Class of ’89″ that included Black, Alan Jackson, Travis Tritt, Vince Gill and Garth Brooks. It then noted that another star also was born in 1989 — Swift herself.
Covington’s video chronicled his many mainstream media appearances, while Bryan’s showed pleasant scenes of his rural upbringing.
Trim and tall in jeans and a white, long-sleeved dress shirt, Bryan exuded boyish enthusiasm and directness when he opened the show with the smooth-talking “Country Man.” The follow-ups — “Baby’s on the Way” and “First Love Song” — were equally lighthearted and upbeat.
Bryan donned a cap to deliver his last offering, “All My Friends Say.” He soon had many in the crowd singing and swaying along.
Covington rode onto the stage on a motorcycle, a gimmick that didn’t fit with his relatively restrained delivery. His voice sounded a bit thin on “It’s Good to Be Us” and “A Different World,” but it was commanding by the time he tore into “The Bible and the Belt.” The emotional high point of his set was the uplifting ballad, “I’ll Walk,” a part of which he sang while sitting on the edge of the stage. The audience was attentive throughout, and many stood and cheered when he took his final bow.
Armed with chiseled features, jet-black hair and a slightly menacing smile, Owen was the evening’s most dramatic performer. He paced the stage with evangelistic intensity as he rolled through “Eight Second Ride” and “Something About a Woman.” His strong, resonant voice illuminated every corner of guilt and regret when he applied it to his signature hit, “Startin’ With Me.”
From his forthcoming album, Owen sang “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You” and then, stripping off his sleek black sport coat, he stood in T-shirt and jeans to wrap things up with his redneck mating call, “Yee Haw.”
Carroll presented himself in black leather jacket and embroidered jeans, his hair tied back into a ponytail. He opened with the tender but high-spirited “Livin’ Our Love Song” and from there moved on to the sassy “I Can Sleep While I’m Dead.”
Like Owen had before him, Carroll shucked down to his T-shirt and was soon carrying the microphone stand around like a lance. His voice was remarkably agile, soaring here, growling there as the lyrics called for. Many in the crowd were dabbing at their eyes when he sang his heartbreaking lament about child abuse, “Alyssa Lies.”
Untying his ponytail and fanning out his hair to signal that serious rock stuff lay ahead, Carroll closed his set with a rousing treatment of REO Speedwagon’s “Take It on the Run.”
The New Faces organizers had wisely saved Swift for the last — and she didn’t disappoint. Looking angelic in her short gleaming gown and gilded guitar, she backed herself with a hot band dressed in black suits, white shirts and ties.
Thanking her radio friends profusely, Swift greeted them with her first hit, “Tim McGraw.” Next came “Our Song,” which she explained she had written for her ninth-grade talent show and which, she continued, had stayed No. 1 on the charts for six weeks.
After singing the autobiographical “Teardrops on My Guitar,” Swift said to the crowd, “Please keep in mind that I try to be a nice person in general. But if you break my heart, or hurt my feelings or don’t add my record or mess with my friends at country radio, I’m going to write a song about you.”
For her finale, she sang “Picture to Burn” and brought the entire audience to its feet. Whether this was an honest standing ovation or the instinctive response of folks eager to go home was not entirely clear.
What was clear, though, is that the crowd enjoyed the show enough to pay close and responsive attention. As jaded as radio people tend to be, that’s the supreme compliment.