From Reba McEntire and Tim McGraw to Country's Newest Faces, Stars Sparkle at Radio Gathering

For three days in Nashville, it was a country music glutton’s feast of performers: Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Keith Urban, Reba McEntire, Dierks Bentley, Eric Church, Florida Georgia Line, Lady Antebellum.

Was there any reason to complain? Well, maybe that Chris Stapleton did fail to show up, but he had a good excuse with three of his five kids down with the flu.

Otherwise, the artist lineups had the sparkliest shine at Country Radio Seminar, the broadcasting convention held last Wednesday through Friday. CRS offers artists and labels the annual opportunity for one-stop radio promotion: to break news, to introduce new music and to boost songs already charting.

No doubt the biggest industry news was label hopscotching by two superstars: Tim McGraw, who recently split from Sony, was the jaw-dropping surprise at Big Machine’s luncheon on Friday, returning to the company where he’d made himself at home from 2012 to 2017; he didn’t perform at the event, but he’s set to release a new single soon and will tour this summer. Reba McEntire’s appearance was the shocker at Team UMG’s revue at Ryman Auditorium on Thursday. Emigrating from Big Machine to her original label, Universal Music Group, she rewarded her audience with a trio of classics: “How Blue,” “And Still” and “Fancy.”

Kenny Chesney, who jumped from Sony to Warner Music a couple of years ago, appeared at Warner’s luncheon on Wednesday to receive the artist humanitarian award from the Country Radio Broadcasters. He was honored for his bountiful charitable efforts, including donating all proceeds, more than $1.1 million, from his 2018 album, Songs for the Saints, to Hurricane Irma relief. Chesney kept any new music under wraps, instead performing crowd-pleasers “Save It for a Rainy Day,” “When The Sun Goes Down” and “Get Along.”

Since CRS offers a captive audience of radio’s decision-makers, it’s often the moment when new songs are premiered.

This time around, Keith Urban advanced his new single, “God Whispered Your Name” — a luscious R&B-tinged love song with an outro “hallelujah” chorus — that the rest of the world will hear on Thursday.

Just back from two months of surfing, Kip Moore brought his current single, “She’s Mine,” out to play for a verse and a chorus before effortlessly segueing into “Janie Blu,” a soulful heartbreaker probably destined for his next album.

Hard at work on their next project, the Brothers Osborne delivered a first-time performance of “Skeletons,” with trademark guitar licks and a driving “It Ain’t My Fault” beat.

Sam Hunt didn’t bring a hip, hop or click track with him, but he did arrive at UMG’s event with three acoustic guitarists to help him deliver a surprisingly traditional “three chords and the truth” country ballad. Solemn and mournful, “2016” is steeped in regret (“I thought I wanted my freedom / I told myself I’d have a ball / But it turns out goin’ out and chasin’ / Dreams and lonely women / Ain’t freedom after all”). Surely it has some real-life inspiration, considering his well-documented reconciliation that year with girlfriend Hannah Lee Fowler, whom he married in 2017. Hunt’s new album, Southside, is due out April 3.

Kelsea Ballerini also surprised by going traditional in a completely different direction, adding her first-ever drinking song to her catalog. “Hole in the Bottle,” debuting at Amazon Music’s showcase, features a lot of the same tongue-in-cheekiness of Ballerini’s “I Hate Love Songs”: “There’s a hole in the bottle / Leakin’ all this wine / It’s already empty/ It ain’t even suppertime.” (Ballerini takes her country vibe only so far: The bottle holds Cabernet, not whiskey.) The song is sure to show up on her third album, dropping March 20.

At the end of an hour-long Q&A covering his life and career, Eric Church premiered one of 28 songs he’d completed in an astonishing 28-day marathon, in which he wrote and recorded a song a day. Perhaps to be titled, “Jenny,” the high-spirited love song comes with lots of renegade spirit.

Still looking for a career-breakout hit, Mickey Guyton delivered a searing debut of “What Are You Gonna Tell Her.” The freshly penned ballad is a bracing dose of reality to young girls with big dreams — a timely message that may be a hard sell to country radio, but the ecstatic reception by the crowd at the UMG event clearly signaled it deserves a national audience.

Other up-and-comers with new music, some just released, also drew attention: Sami Bearden, Savana Santos and Sam Backoff — the girls-next-door trio Avenue Beat — showed they’re blazing their own trail with an infectious song like “Ruin That For Me,” which goes to radio March 23. Travis Denning brought a welcome helping of merriment with new release “ABBY” (which stands for “anybody but you”). At Big Machine’s luncheon, Payton Smith auditioned to be the next country-rock god with a four-song set, including upcoming debut single, “Like I Knew You Would.”

Caylee Hammack was at her storytelling best with new single, the autobiographical “Small Town Hypocrite” (though she might have to find another four-letter word to rhyme with “hypocrite” to get it on terrestrial radio). Danielle Bradbery’s two brand-new ballads, ““Girls In My Hometown” and “Never Have I Ever,” reminded listeners of the crystalline voice that was The Voice on that TV show’s fourth season.

Luke Bryan prepped listeners for his seventh album, out April 24, by performing recently released title cut, “Born Here, Live Here, Die Here.” Carrie Underwood, a newcomer at the UMG event, offered an acoustic version of album cut “Spinning Bottles” and duetted with Urban on their No. 1 hit, “The Fighter.”

Dierks Bentley showed up as Hot Country Knights frontman Doug Douglason in his bad wig and (yikes) a crop-top T-shirt; he and his ’90s-throwback band threw down their new single, “Pick Her Up.” Florida Georgia Line and Lady Antebellum both did victory laps, delivering sets of selected hits at the Big Machine event. Miranda Lambert topped an hour-long Q&A with two Wildcard cuts, “Dark Bars” and “How Dare You Love.” And Garth Brooks turned in an 11-song set of covers and his own hits at CRS’s annual songwriters event.

Five fresh talents — Ingrid Andress, Morgan Evans, Riley Green, Runaway June and Mitchell Tenpenny  — were voted by broadcasters to be the 2020 class of CRS’s “New Faces,” and each was rewarded with short sets on the final night of the conference. Their stage performances proved they’re all just as riveting to the eyes as the ears, and each amply proved the power of the personal.

Andress drew a standing ovation for her top 15-and-climbing “More Hearts Than Mine,” inspired by real life. The loss of loved ones brought out the emotional depth in three artists: Evans’ “Things That We Drink To” was dedicated to his late manager, Rob Potts; Tenpenny performed “Walk Like Him,” inspired by his late father; and Green wrenched hearts with his career-defining “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.” And though Naomi Cooke, Jennifer Wayne and Hannah Mulholland of Runaway June didn’t write “We Were Rich,” they made that looking-back song their own with a stirring delivery.

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