Drake White, William Michael Morgan, Granger Smith, Jon Pardi and Maren Morris all came across polished and professional during their performances Friday night (Feb. 24) at the Country Radio Seminar’s New Faces show in Nashville, but it was hardly their fault that they seemed more entertaining than charismatic.
The New Faces shows used to be threaded through with a sense of discovery, of witnessing artists just as they were blossoming. That’s no longer the reality.
This year, every one of these singers — with the possible exception of White — has had a ton of exposure via multiple music videos, award show appearances and guest spots on national television. Morris has even won a Grammy. And, apart from these very public displays of their music, they’ve all done those interminable rounds of radio station visits, too.
So performing at the Omni Hotel to a room filled with jaded, media-wise radio programmers and making them sit up and take notice after days of panel discussions and parties requires more than mere competence and congeniality.
That there were no bands or vocal duos this year also dragged down the interest level.
Ah, but there were moments.
White hit the stage like a coiled spring and, with evangelistic fervor, proceeded to wring every last drop of sensuality out of his opening number, “It Feels Good.” He even worked in a bit of good-ol’-boy choreography to keep eyes front.
From there, he barreled through his idyllic “Livin’ a Dream” and then eased into his paean to emotionally sincerity, “Heartbeat,” By the end of that song, he’d elevated his observations it into a ringing anthem. White took his leave with a nod to women who stand by their men, “Making Me Look Good Again,” telling the men in the audience, “If you can’t get it done after this [song], dude, it’s your fault.”
Morgan led with the title cut from his debut album, Vinyl, thereby bowing in with an easy-listening vibe. But he ramped up the sound quickly with the rowdy but right-on “Thank a Beer Drinker.” Don’t be surprised if this one — with its array of working-class images — ends up as the theme of a major advertising campaign.
Morgan shifted gears again with his love song to a dying father, “I Know Who He Is.” It’s easily the most moving such tribute since Bobby Pinson brought us to tears with “Ford Fairlane.” For the wrapup, Morgan proffered “Missing” and his 2015 breakthrough hit, “I Met a Girl.”
Whether Morgan will become the savior of traditional country music, as some predict, is still open to debate. It’s clear, though, that his inclination toward strong stories and sentiments have made him one of that genre’s brightest exponents.
At the age of 37 and with nine albums to his credit, Smith was the most stage-tested and road-savvy of the bunch. And it showed in the ease with which he went about his work. He kicked things off with “If the Boot Fits,” his second chart single, then rewound to his first No. 1, “Backroad Song,” which he led into with the intro to “Free Fallin’.”
After some riffing on his debt to radio, Smith trotted off stage to re-emerge as his rube alter-ego, Earl Dibbles Jr. Wearing bib overalls and waving a “Yee Yee” emblazoned flag, “Dibbles” regaled the audience with “The Country Boy Song,” a basket of deplorable stereotypes beside which Hank Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” would sound like James Taylor. A sample line: “I keep a 12-gauge by my waterbed/’Cause the next trailer over is a meth head.”
These shenanigans earned “Dibbles” a standing ovation from a small part of the crowd. At the same time, a steady stream of CRS folks was leaving the room to mingle at the bars outside.
Pardi plunged into action with the fast-paced and leering “Cowboy Hat,” a visible crowd-pleaser. But if he doted seeing his girl in his first song, he dreaded seeing her in his second, “She Ain’t in It.” Here he tells a friend who’s trying to lure him out for a night of honky-tonking, “Don’t wanna hear her name/Don’t wanna see her face.”
His next offering was “Head Over Boots,” his No. 1 single and as traditional sounding as anything Morgan had showcased earlier. Pardi concluded with his current single, the sprightly and dance-oriented “Dirt on My Boots.”
(Yes, that was the third song of the evening with boots in the title.}
The crowd yelled with approval when Morris came on stage but was noticeably subdued as her set progressed. That appeared to have more to do with the lateness of the hour than with the quality of her performance.
A part of the problem, as well, was that Morris’ delicate voice had trouble being heard over the loudness of her band. Fortunately, the crowd had only to distinguish the “Woh-oh” exclamations in her “80s Mercedes” lead-off to feel in comfortable territory.
Her message came through more firmly and distinctly in “I Could Use a Love Song,” which, she announced, will be her next single. It’s a song about feeling jaded about what passes for romance and needing to return (at least mentally) to the freshness and wonder of new love.
Then it was on to the much-heralded and radio-friendly “My Church,” for which she won a best country solo performance Grammy. In an admirable departure from the other acts, Morris paused her program to introduce the members of her band.
She closed her set and the evening with the sparkling but self-reproaching “Rich.” But by this time she was singing largely to receding backs