Chris Janson was the last of five acts to perform Wednesday night (Feb. 10) at Country Radio Broadcasters’ New Faces Show. And a good thing, too. It would have been cruel to anyone having to follow him.
Thin as a paperclip and whipping about the stage like a downed power line, Janson electrified the crowd at Nashville’s Omni Hotel — not with his music alone, but also with graphic tales of his “white trash” upbringing and tortuous 10-year career climb.
The other four acts — Cam, Brothers Osborne, Kelsea Ballerini and Old Dominion — all performed smoothly and entertainingly, each leaving behind memorable moments. But Janson simply overwhelmed with his energy and passion.
He rocketed onto the stage, a harmonica in his left hand, his right hand held down to the side with fingers widespread and shaking, as if warding off subterranean devils. That was his frenzied intro to the redemptive cry of “Back in My Drinkin’ Days.’
Janson spoke of coming to Nashville with big dreams and hitting the wall when not a single bar would let him sing in it, of sleeping in his car between gigs when he finally got them and of playing the back room at Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge on Lower Broadway and watching the stars stream in backstage at the storied Ryman Auditorium across the alley.
“It truly is 10 steps to the Ryman,”he said, “and it took me 10 long years to get there.”
From there, he was on to the cheeky, boastful, autobiographical posturing of “White Trash” and his pragmatic paean to alcohol in “The Power of Positive Drinking.”’
He paused the music to recount how he’d found the love of his life, married her and ended up with two “blood children” and two “bonus children.”
Just as the other acts had done, he expressed his appreciation to the audience of radio programmers who played his music. But his expression of gratefulness sounded less pro forma and more heartfelt.
“Thank you for putting food on my table and feeding my family,” he said, and the audience — accustomed to the flattery of artists — ate it up.
But Janson’s real moment of transcendence occurred when he sang “When I’m Holding Her,” his tribute to love-infused domestic life.
“And when I’m holding her/It’s like peace on earth/Where time stands still,” he sang, his voice rising in joy and gratitude. Many in the crowd were on their feet and cheering by the time he reached the chorus.
Like country artists of old, Janson ramped up the emotional content of the song with short, spoken recitations.
At the end, he got a room-wide standing ovation, the only one of the evening.
Janson wrapped up his set — and the concert — with his jaunty breakthrough hit, “Buy Me a Boat.” The crowd — its number visibly diminished at this late hour — happily sang along.
Cam, prancing and radiant, opened the show with “Untamed,” sassily belting out the lyrics. It was more high-velocity fare with “Runaway Train.” She followed with her new single, “Mayday,” which she described as being for “anyone who ever got stuck in a relationship.”
Pausing to compliment her band, she purred, “You know, guys don’t get a lot of chances in this business. You gotta give them a break.” Gentle though it was, the audience picked up on the sarcasm.
Beautifully at ease on stage, she bid her farewell with “Burning House,” the song that first endeared her to radio. And when she stopped to let the folks in the audience sing the chorus, they did without hesitation.
Brothers Osborne brought their rock sensibility to the party — and turned the show into the party with that pounding torrent of stoner rationalization, “It Ain’t My Fault.” T. J. Osborne’s bulldozer baritone came on like an irresistible force, while brother John’s pulsating lead guitar kept him on the straight and narrow.
The high point of their set, though, was “Loving Me Back,” the song they recorded with Lee Ann Womack. Its grim renunciation of bright lights and booze for the comfort of softer addictions rolled out like an epic poem and rendered the crowd absolutely quiet as the drama built. It netted them great applause at the end.
The Osbornes bowed out with their hit, “Stay a Little Longer.”
Kelsea Ballerini spoke of her life-long tenure as a fan of country music, a role she continues to inhabit, she said. She opened with her current single, “Dibs,” and moved on to the pile-driving rhythms of “XO,” which she delivered with just the right measure of righteous indignation.
She looked cool and sang convincingly through “Peter Pan” and exited — a bit too early for dramatic effect — with her admonitory debut hit, “Love Me Like You Mean It.”
Old Dominion stepped out with the insanely catchy “Snapback,” a combination come-on and product endorsement. The band’s vocal harmonies were superb, even if its choice of lyrics tended toward transitory juvenile enthusiasms in such lyrical snapshots as “Said Nobody,” “Nowhere Fast” and “Song for Another Time.’
“This is the one that kicked the doors in,” lead vocalist Matthew Ramsey announced as the group swung into “Break Up With Him.” Musically, theirs was a rock-solid performance that seemed to herald great things for the band.
Instead of changing the stage background with each new act as it had in earlier editions, this year’s New Faces setup was the same for everyone and did much to focus attention solely on musical merit. And there was plenty of that.