Acts Shine on Country Radio Seminar’s New Faces Show

Pickler, Wicks, Otto, Lady Antebellum, Zac Brown Band Spotlighted

Kellie Pickler, James Otto, Chuck Wicks, Lady Antebellum and the Zac Brown Band displayed their musical wares to an appreciative audience Friday night (March 6) at the Country Radio Seminar’s annual New Faces Show.

Staged at the Nashville Convention Center, the show was the final event on the Seminar’s agenda. This year’s audience was noticeably smaller than those of the recent past, possibly a reflection of the nation’s tightening economy.

“I want to welcome you to the hillbilly Cirque du Soleil,” joked Charlie Monk, who hosted the proceedings. He continued with a barrage of jokes aimed at the soft spots of prominent radio and music industry figures.

Monk reported that a high-profile A&R official at one of the major record labels was run over by a train because “he didn’t hear it,” a swipe at the inability of certain song screeners to recognize a potential hit when it’s played for them.

Monk said a tourist who asked, “How do you get to the Country Music Hall of Fame?” was told, “Marry Amy Grant.” Then he spoke of an upcoming movie about the financial speculators who had looted radio stations. He said its working title was Scum Dog Millionaires.

Finally, with a nod to the graying members of his audience, the 70-something Monk sighed, “You know you’re getting old when your favorite porn is Debby Does Dialysis.

Aging, however, was the farthest thing from the mind of the show’s first act, the rip-roaring Zac Brown Band. Brown and his five merrymakers kicked off with their current single, “Whatever It Is,” revved up the action with the calypso cavorting of “Toes” and concluded with the band’s recent and first No. 1, “Chicken Fried.”

The crowd began cheering as soon as it recognized the opening chords of “Chicken Fried,” and it gave the band a standing ovation when Brown ended the song with some incredibly wild and galloping guitar picking.

The dauntingly handsome Wicks worked the stage with consummate amiability and confidence. He breezed through “All I Ever Wanted” and became properly reverential in reprising his biggest hit to date, “Stealing Cinderella.”

He reflected on the life of children whose parents have gone away to war when he introduced his new single, “Man of the House.” Finally, Chuck the Charmer emerged in a wily song about succumbing to his partner’s sexual allure. Wicks didn’t announce the title of the song, but it may have been “Even Better on the Floor” since that’s where the lady’s dress ends up.

There’s no doubt that Kellie Pickler is Dolly Parton reincarnated, a point underlined by the fact that Parton introduced her via video.

Pickler is not yet as quick-witted as Parton, but she’s gaining on her. “I didn’t sleep my way to the top, I promise,” she purred midway through her set. “I ain’t anywhere near the top.” She’s also mastered Parton’s femme fatale gestures, from the provocatively wagging finger to the hand on the cocked hip.

Pickler anatomized the woes of bad relationships with “The Best Days of Your Life,” “Rocks Instead of Rice” and “Didn’t You Know How Much I Loved You.” From there she proceeded to the sunny and lilting, “Makin’ Me Fall In Love Again.”

The vivacious singer told the audience that since she was a little girl she had dreamed of turning on the car radio and hearing, “Here’s Kellie Pickler.”

It happened almost that way, she said, when she was on a bus with her fellow American Idol contestants and heard her first single, “Red High Heels,” on the radio. She recalled that everyone on the bus was screaming and jumping up and down when her song came on.

Suitably enough, Pickler capped her segment with “Red High Heels.” She strode off the stage and into the audience just before the song was over, and the crowd stood to cheer her on.

Next up was the towering Otto, who opened with “These Are the Good Old Days.” Then he dismissed his band and, accompanying himself on acoustic guitar, sang the bluesy and wounded “Damn Right.”

In Otto’s commanding stature and vocal presence, there was more than a little of Gary Morris at his best, a kind of brooding vulnerability. Otto sang with such conviction that the crowd interrupted with applause.

For his finale, Otto did his No. 1 song from last year, “Just Got Started Lovin’ You.”

Although Lady Antebellum looks like a group designed by a youth minister who’s determined to reach out to teens, it really rocked the house. The trio and its band started with “Lookin’ for a Good Time,” segued into a crowd-animating riff on AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” and then returned to the original tune.

From there the group journeyed on to “I Run to You” and then closed its set — and the evening — with its breakthrough single, “Love Don’t Live Here.”

From the solid talent to the fluid pacing to the clever video intros, the 2009 New Faces Show was splendid entertainment.

View photos from the New Faces Show.