Braving the prospect of violent weather, the General Jackson showboat departed its downtown Nashville dock Thursday evening (March 1) for a four-hour voyage of music and gluttony. In a lineup that ranged from Carrie Underwood to Brooks & Dunn, Sony BMG trotted out its brightest stars for the lavish event that's regarded as a recreational highpoint of Country Radio Seminar week.
It had rained and thundered ominously during the hours leading up to embarkation, and there was some fear of tornadoes. But the trip turned out to be smooth. The only rocking was musically or alcoholically induced. Disc jockeys and radio executives made up most of the captive audience.
As usual, Sony BMG preceded the music with an opulent, white-tablecloth dinner. The boat's several bars were up and running from the moment the crowd came aboard, and they remained beehives throughout the evening. Many customers were seen ordering a drink for each hand to spare themselves the rigors of having to stand too much in line.
Scattered on all the bars and tables were Hershey chocolate bars, an oddly dissonant decoration that would be explained later.
Before the dinner got underway, several artists circulated through the audience to renew radio acquaintances and pose for pictures. Among these were Miranda Lambert, Terri Clark, Ashley Monroe and Donnie and Johnny Van Zant.
Montgomery Gentry kicked off the post-dinner show with "My Town" and Eddie Montgomery's usual chatter about the joys of honky tonking. He was, of course, preaching to the converted. The duo's next and final number was their current single, "Lucky Man."
Because of the length of the lineup, the acts limited themselves to two or three songs. Videos by other Sony BMG artists were shown during the stage changes.
Fresh from his success with "Alyssa Lies," Jason Michael Carroll entertained the assemblage with "Livin' Our Love Song" and then summoned fellow newcomer Ashley Monroe to the stage to duet with him on "No Good in Goodbye."
"I'm happy to tell you she's the strongest and happiest she's ever been," said After MidNite radio host Blair Garner when he introduced Sara Evans. He was alluding, no doubt, to the strain Evans is going through in her rancorous and much-publicized divorce proceedings.
Evans opened with "New Home Town" and then spoke about writing a song on unconditional love when she was pregnant with her third child. That song was "You'll Always Be My Baby," which she sang after noting that she "absolutely forgives" her children for everything -- "except if they walk in on me in the middle of Grey's Anatomy."
At the end of Evans' set, Sony BMG chief Joe Galante presented her with a platinum album for her latest collection, Real Fine Place.
Since it was made up of those who listen to music for a living, the boat show audience was only politely responsive to most of the acts. Texas rabble-rouser Pat Green tried to amp up the enthusiasm but had only limited success.
"Here it is folks -- my ballad," he joked, as he eased into "Dixie Lullabye." He said there were only two instances in his 10 years of recording when he knew he had cut a hit. "Wave on Wave" was the first, he declared, and "Dixie Lullabye" is destined to be the second. All the DJs need to do to fulfill that prophecy, he suggested, was to keep playing the record.
Green called Evans out to sing "Finders Keepers" with him, just as she does on his current album, Cannonball. "What's wrong with you people?" he asked incredulously when song ended to tepid applause.
Having tried everything but mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to get the crowd going, Green signed off with "Wave on Wave" and was finally rewarded with the evening's first standing ovation. Actually, it was more of a crouching ovation, one of those strange half measures in which the body aspires to full extension but then thinks better of it and sits back down.
At this point, Sony BMG's Tom Baldrica, who hosted the show, interrupted the proceedings to play a video of Kellie Pickler's performance on American Idol a few minutes earlier. First apologizing that Pickler couldn't be there in person, Baldrica explained -- and swore it was true -- that the tape had just been delivered to the General Jackson by speedboat in order for the audience to see Pickler's live rendition of her current single, "I Wonder."
With band members seated on a row of stools on either side of her, Gretchen Wilson introduced her two-song set with "Come to Bed." In keeping with her tough-gal persona, she corrected Baldrica, who had just called this event as "her first time," by adding, "It's my first time on the boat." She concluded with "One of the Boys."
Dressed in a glittering, sleeveless black top, skintight jeans and high heels, Underwood was dazzling in both appearance and delivery. She burned through "Wasted" and then turned her versatile pipes to a fresh reading of Dolly Parton's "Jolene."
After crooning the first few theme-establishing lines of "Jolene," Underwood segued into the viperish "Before He Cheats," visibly pumping up the crowd's energy level. Galante rewarded the singer with a plaque marking the sale of 5 million copies of her first album, Some Hearts. He predicted sales would reach 6 million before the year is out.
The audience then heard that the Hershey bars were there as tokens of Brad Paisley's upcoming tour, which the candy company is sponsoring. Without fanfare, Paisley sauntered to the stage, lugging his guitar and wearing a white cowboy hat, short-sleeved shirt and jeans. In a clear reference to his new son, William Huckleberry, Paisley reported, "It's not true what they told me on my first radio tour. Radio doesn't get your firstborn."
Paisley made his bow with "Waiting on a Woman." He said a new version of the song (which first appeared on his current album, Time Well Wasted) will be included as a bonus track on his impending CD. Paisley convulsed the crowd with "Ticks," his last song of the night and the first single from the new and as-yet-untitled album. Paisley said the song was what he imagined an overeager country boy might say to a girl he fancied. After first assuring her, "I've got your back, and I've also got your front," the rube Romeo confides, "I'd like to check you for ticks."
After it has had its country run, don't be surprised if "Ticks" shows up on National Geographic specials on the conduct of primates.
While Paisley was breaking up his listeners, his assistants were moving through the room and handing out cigars, the bands of which read "It's a Tick." The song was released digitally to radio at the end of the party.
Galante said he's the only one at the label who's heard Paisley's new album. "I can only tell you that on every level it's a huge step-up," he enthused. He also presented the singer a plaque commemorating the double-platinum success of Time Well Wasted.
When Martina McBride came on, she said she had decided to sing something her fans hadn't heard her do "a hundred times" before. With that, she eased into "Natural Woman," the Aretha Franklin classic. She spoke briefly of her next album, Waking Up Laughing, which is due out April 3.
She said it was the first album she has produced entirely by herself and the first in which she had co-written some of the songs. "It's also the first album that's going to have six No. 1's. Right?" she teased the programmers. McBride wrapped up her set with her current single, "Anyway," and scored a standing ovation.
Galante brought Brooks & Dunn to the stage. Announcing that they've sold 30 million albums, he handed them an ornate plaque inscribed with those impressive stats. The proud pair promptly cranked the noise up to 11 with a stomp through "Hillbilly Deluxe." They kept pulses pounding via "I Ain't Living Long Like This," on which Evans, McBride and Underwood each took a turn.
The evening's finale was an all-cast spree through "Sweet Home Alabama" that featured Kix Brooks playing a mean blues harmonica. They were still singing about home when the sensory satiated crowd surged toward the landing.