“I never had so many people open for me!” Josh Turner exclaimed Wednesday at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. “Wow!”
Indeed, 14 artists preceded him in that legendary venue, though another three sang after him as well as the Universal Music Group Nashville showcased its talent for Country Radio Seminar registrants in a unique format that provided a microcosm of the wide net that contemporary country represents.
Sugarland, David Nail, Jamey Johnson and Vince Gill were particular standouts as the acts performed just one song apiece. Collectively, the music ranged from bluegrass influences to blue-eyed soul; the acts stretched from brand new artists who haven’t yet released a single to one member of the Country Music Hall of Fame; and their backgrounds ran the gamut from Broadway to TV performer to Texas troubadours.
“This is so fun,” Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles noted, “to be in music and see all these different musicians… Some of ‘em lean more pop, some of ‘em lean more country, some of ‘em lean more rock, but they’re all under this umbrella.”
These one-song snapshots of all 18 artists demonstrate the genre’s diversity:
• Jennifer’s free-wheeling, channeled creativity on Sugarland’s Olympic contribution, “Wide Open,” had her building uphill and downhill melodic curves while Kristian Bush stomped on the historic, beat-up Ryman floor. There’s a hippie sort of groove there that’s unique in the genre.
• Vince’s “Bread And Water,” rendered with a conversational ease, blended economics, spirituality and mortality in a quasi-folk story song. Hall of Famer Vince was appreciative of his longevity and of the musical quality he witnessed in the younger performers: “It’s good to see people love this music.”
• Dressed in heels and a shiny white dress, Lee Ann Womack performed with a Tammy Wynette-like veneer and an understated class. And when she hit the highest note in the chorus of “There Is A God,” she caught the sonic vibrancy of Tammy’s part in the ‘90s KLF novelty “Justified & Ancient.”
• Josh infused bluegrass character into the day, welcoming Union Station’s Ron Block to provide banjo during a preview of Josh’s next single, “All Over Me.” He also gave a humorously weird interpretation of Ralph Stanley covering Nelly’s hip-hop blockbuster “Hot In Herre.”
• Performing without the benefit of a band, Gary Allan backed his raspy rendition of “Right Where I Need To Be” with some fierce guitar strumming. It reinforced the notion that the hard edge he exudes as a vocalist is very real.
• Jamey, in a well-worn leather jacket and shaggy beard, performed a moving tribute to Nashville’s songwriting tradition, blending a quasi-recitation with a George Jones. He namechecked four significant composers — Harlan Howard, Bob McDill, Whitey Shafer and Bill Anderson — picking up a standing ovation in the process.
• Former “Dancing With The Stars” regular Julianne Hough, fresh from the set of the in-production movie Burlesque, tugged in a couple different directions. The white outfit and cover-girl appearance are perky, but she evinced a husky tone that seems a bit incongruent with the visuals.
• Backed by a bluesy piano, David Nail killed with the dynamic blue-eyed soul of his current single, “Turning Home.” He demonstrated an emotional power that exceeds anything you’ve heard from his recordings.
• Ryan Bingham turned in his Oscar-nominated, Golden Globe-winning “The Weary Kind (Theme From Crazy Heart).” A sort of musical heir to Tom Waits.
• The Randy Rogers Band previewed a song from its forthcoming album. The act maintains a rough-edged honesty enhanced with thick, three-part harmonies.
• Ashton Shepherd delivered “Sounds So Good” with ultra-southern sonics, from her Alabama drawl to the nimble mandolin enhancements. She’s a strong candidate to take a spot once owned in commercial country by Patty Loveless.
• Mallary Hope showed off a commanding, clear resonance and the ability to overcome her nerves. “Welcome to the Ryman,” she proclaimed. “I’m not gonna throw up!”
• Randy Montana, the son of ‘90s recording artist Billy Montana, served up his moody debut single “Ain’t Much Left Of Lovin’ You,” which comes out in March. An audible “wow” was heard from the balcony after the final chord.
• Coldwater Jane contributed cutting femme harmonies in line with former hitmakers Sweethearts Of The Rodeo and the Kinleys.
• Josh Kelley demonstrated some of the same smoky quality that brother Charles Kelley, of Lady Antebellum, exudes. Expect the singer-songwriter’s first country single in the latter half of 2010.
• Laura Bell Bundy may have a Broadway resume, thanks to stints in Hairspray and Wicked, but her voice is ladled with grits and gravy.
• Easton Corbin’s performance of “A Little More Country Than That” coincided with his first appearance in the genre’s Top 10. His tone suggests George Strait, and his delivery was right on the money.