Time will tell whether the five singers who performed Friday night (Feb. 21) on Country Radio Seminar's New Faces Show at the Nashville Convention Center are indeed the new faces of country music or simply outriders of a format still in search of its essence.
Thomas Rhett and Tyler Farr, backed by propulsive, ear-pounding bands, carried the genes of country's naughty flirtations with Bacchanalian rock music, while Brett Eldredge and Charlie Worsham -- less loud and more lyrically sensitive -- revived memories of country's ballad tradition.
Caught somewhere in the middle of this sonic swirl was Cassadee Pope, whose vulnerable, heartfelt songs and sweet vocal delivery were repeatedly overwhelmed by the musicians who backed her. One knew she was saying something emotionally significant -- but not always what.
Both she and Rhett alluded in song to their parents' divorces -- she in the almost unbearably wounded "Eleven" and he in the more matter-of-fact "All American Middle Class White Boy," which opened the show.
The acts appeared in this order: Rhett, Eldredge, Pope, Farr and Worsham.
Although musically strong, the show was undercut by the lack of a host to give it continuity and by long stretches between acts during which literally dozens of awards were announced for those working in the radio and records industries.
Inevitably, then, the generally attentive crowd became more restless and distracted as the evening struggled on. The event finally adjourned three and a-half hours after it began.
Also slowing the process were the promotional videos played to introduce each act. Most were funny -- at least to some degree -- as they tried to convey the subject's personality and potential for stardom.
Rhett's video began with him being overshadowed by his singing-songwriting dad, Rhett Akins, and then that process being quickly reversed. Eldredge's built on his already considerable national media exposure.
Pope's clip was straightforward and serious with her talking directly to the camera about her background and artistic evolution.
Farr's focused on his working as an opening act for Jason Aldean and, in the process, trying to settle on the right image for presenting himself to the world. Worsham's envisioned him as a superstar who could now write the rules for country music.
With their ball caps, beards and references to women as their chief form of amusement, Rhett and Farr projected a kind of hardware-store hedonism that often -- but not always -- got the audience moving in its seats.
Being next to last on the bill, Farr had a harder time of it. He twice left the stage and went into the crowd to exhort his listeners to stand and sing along. But it was pretty much a losing battle.
Still, he earned kudos for the variety of his material, which ranged from the largely untested "Camo Is the New Black" and cover of Awolnation's "Sail" to his signature "Redneck Crazy" and new single, "Whiskey in My Water."
Dressed in a well-cut sport coat, open collar shirt and fashionably snug trousers, Eldredge came across as the adult in the room. His voice was powerful but nuanced and never strident.
Backed only by a wistful piano, he crooned the crowd into absolute silence as he explored the stark, desolate imagery of "One Mississippi." Before he reached the last line of the song, he had a standing ovation.
Pope exhibited an endearing earnestness in both stage presence and subject matter. She said "Eleven" was "probably the most personal song" she'd ever written.
In laying bare the agony of a young girl who's torn and puzzled by her parents' separation (and by the ease with which her father settles into a new life without her), Pope's "Eleven" conjured up the same intense feelings Kellie Pickler aroused with "I Wonder," her own song of crushing abandonment.
Worsham turned in a masterful set that featured his intimate singing style and formidable guitar playing. His band, while instrumentally agile, was subdued enough of allow every word of his songs to be heard.
A high point came when Sheryl Crow joined him to sing harmony on "Mississippi in July." He closed with the familiar and infectious "Rubberband," in which he displayed all the superstar chops his video imagined.
Here is the 2014 New Faces set list:
Thomas Rhett: "All American Middle Class White Boy," "Get Me Some of That," "It Goes Like This," "Something to Do With My Hands"
Brett Eldredge: "Beat of the Music," "Mean to Me," "Don't Ya," "One Mississippi"
Cassadee Pope: "I Wish I Could Break Your Heart," "Eleven," "You Hear a Song," "Wasting All These Tears"
Tyler Farr: "Camo Is the New Black," "Ain't Even Drinkin'," "Sail," "Whiskey in My Water," "Redneck Crazy"
Charlie Worsham: "Want Me Too," "Trouble Is," "Mississippi in July," "Could It Be," "Rubberband"