Country Radio Broadcasters’ sold-out New Faces show Friday night (Feb. 27) at the Nashville Convention Center was the tightest, most entertaining edition in recent memory.
That may have had something to do with the fact that all five featured acts — Sam Hunt, Frankie Ballard, Maddie & Tae, Eric Paslay and Cole Swindell — each had at least one No. 1 single under their belt and were by now quite at home performing for large audiences.
Moreover, the tedious and time-consuming award presentations that plagued former shows by slowing their musical momentum were relatively brief this year, just long enough to allow one to make a quick escape to the bar and return for the next act.
The New Faces show is the concluding segment of the annual Country Radio Seminar which began Wednesday (Feb. 25).
All the acts and their backing bands were energetic and well-received by the crowd of radio station and record label folk, but it was Paslay, standing solidly behind his microphone instead of roaming the stage, who got the most enthusiastic and sustained applause.
He began the song by backing himself on acoustic guitar while his band remained quiet. As his agile voice rose in intensity and the band joined in, the crowd began applauding. When he finished on a somber note, he was rewarded with a standing ovation.
Paslay wrapped up his segment with “Keep on Fallin’” and “Friday Night.”
Each act was limited to four songs, a restriction that kept the show going at a brisk pace.
Hunt was the first act on. Striding around the stage with confidence and authority, he started with his first hit, “Leave the Night On,” and then blazed through the raucous “House Party,” during which he went down into the audience to greet some of the people who were up from their tables and dancing.
Next came “Take Your Time.” Hunt finished with the half-spoken, half-sung “Break Up in a Small Town,” a movingly claustrophobic account of being in close proximity to an ex-lover who’s broken your heart.
With his slicked-back hair and black leather jacket, Ballard conjured up the teenage simplicity of the 1950s, even though the themes of his songs were considerably more adult.
“I was Nobody from Battle Creek, Michigan until you played this one,” he told the radio programmers as he launched into “Helluva Life.”
He told the audience he had separated his shoulder recently by diving into the crowd at a show in Houston — “taking it to the people,” he called it — and said his doctor had forbidden him to play the guitar until he mended.
But, he continued, he was ignoring that medical prohibition for a show as special as this one. Strapping on his guitar again, he executed some dazzling licks while signing off with “Young & Crazy.”
The crowd began applauding as soon as Maddie & Tae’s named was announced. The teenage duo started off with their first single and first No. 1, “Girl in a Country Song,” an observational ditty enhanced by their glorious vocal harmonies. Those kids can really sing!
The whimsical “Shut Up and Fish” came next. Maddie & Tae closed with the inspirational “Fly” and the emotionally reassuring pledge of friendship, “After the Storm Blows Through.”
As if to demonstrate the sincerity of the final song, the two moved together and hugged each other at the end — and the crowd cheered them on.
Swindell closed with the hardest-driving set of the evening, one that partook more of rock than traditional country.
Beginning with the convivial “Hey, Y’all,” he sped ahead with “Hope You Get Lonely Tonight” and “Chillin’ It” (his first No. 1). For his finale, he chose the truculent and defensive “Ain’t Worth the Whiskey.”
“No matter what happens,” he told the crowd as he urged them to sing along, “when I get onstage, everything’s all right.”
And indeed it was. Unlike in former years, most of the people stayed in their seats with their eyes fixed on the stage until the last note faded.
One of the most amusing parts of the show was the series of between-sets videos promoting Nashville’s new Omni Hotel, where next year’s Country Radio Seminar will be held.
In these clips, WUSY-FM/Chattanooga program director Gator Harrison took viewers on a tour of the hotel’s facilities he deemed most appealing to radio conventioneers, notably the bars, restaurants, massage parlors and restrooms.
The funniest clip showed Warner Nashville Records chief John Esposito stripped down and lying on a massage table adjacent to the one Harrison was occupying.
After settling in and marveling how relaxing the experience is, Esposito begins haranguing Harrison about the Warner artists whose records his station aren’t playing — or aren’t playing enough.
Then, with exquisite sarcasm, Esposito observes, “Well, at least you’re playing Blake Shelton. That’s brave.”