By Annie Reuter
Each year, thousands of radio professionals travel to Nashville for the Country Radio Seminar (CRS). The annual three-day gathering is packed with live music, industry-related panels, parties and surprises, and this year Radio.com was on hand to take it all in.
Between artist interviews, label showcases and even a few ‘secret’ events, we covered a lot of ground in a short amount of time. There were tons of highlights, but below we’ve singled out our top 10 CRS moments.
1. Garth Brooks’ Secret Club Show
Garth Brooks came out of retirement last year and has been selling out arenas ever since. So, to witness the country singer live at a small club with a few hundred people was an experience that will likely never happen again. Though he has been off the grid for nearly 20 years, it was impossible to tell. He put on the show with the same energy as if it was a sold-out gig at Madison Square Garden. In addition to playing some new material off his latest release Man Against Machine, Brooks’ set spanned his catalog of hits including “The Dance,” “The Thunder Rolls,” “Callin’ Baton Rouge” and fan favorite “Friends In Low Places.”
2. Keith Urban’s Intimate Midnight Show
Keith Urban is no stranger to the spotlight. He is in homes across the nation every week as a judge on American Idol, but in the early hours of Friday morning it was as if he took CRS attendees into his own home. Shortly after midnight, Urban took to the historic Ryman stage where a carpet engulfed his music gear. Urban performed his first few tracks alone and it was as if we were in his living room having a conversation. Throughout his hour set, he played most of his previous hits stripped down on acoustic guitar, banjo and piano and even filled the audience in on his writing process. Before he began “Somebody Like You,” he said the track was written with the help of a drum machine and his old six-string banjo. Other highlights included a brief cover of “Jessie’s Girl” into “Long Hot Summer” at the start of his set, a piano version of “Somewhere In My Car” and “Kiss a Girl,” where he invited audience members to join him onstage and take over the mic to have their own moment in the spotlight.
3. Dinner Cruise with Cheap Trick
A dinner cruise isn’t complete without some music, and Sony’s 29th annual CRS boat show did not disappoint. The night included a sit-down meal with live performances from Sony’s roster while sailing down the Cumberland River. While highlights included Trisha Yearwood‘s moving cover of Linda Ronstadt’s “Blue Bayou,” Jake Owen‘s powerful new single “What We Ain’t Got” and Brad Paisley‘s impressive cover of Van Halen‘s “Hot for Teacher,” it was the surprise performance by Cheap Trick that had everyone on their feet. The band walked out on the stage as Paisley was covering their song “I Want You To Want Me” and stayed to perform “Surrender,” “Ain’t That a Shame” and “Dream Police.”
Related: Cheap Trick and Brad Paisley Play ‘I Want You to Want Me’ on a Boat in Nashville
4. Dierks Bentley’s ’90s Country Cover Band
When he’s not on tour (and working on how to prank his tourmates), Dierks Bentley likes to play in another band called Hot Country Nights. This band however, is not like anything you’ve ever seen before. Hot Country Knights is Bentley’s ’90s country cover band and he and his friends really get into the roll complete with costumes and ridiculously awesome wigs. On Wednesday (Feb. 25) night Bentley called on friends Miranda Lambert, Lady Antebellum‘s Charles Kelley, Randy Houser, Kip Moore and Brothers Osborne to join him at The Stage on Broadway to make some very special music. Highlights included covers of Alan Jackson’s “Chattahootchee,” Brooks & Dunn’s “My Maria,” Shania Twain’s “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under” and a very disturbing Russian rendition of Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Achy Breaky Heart.
5. Lee Brice’s Sold-Out Show at Ryman Auditorium
A year ago, Lee Brice released the video for “I Don’t Dance,” which was shot at an empty Ryman Auditorium. This past week he returned to the famous venue, and there wasn’t a single empty seat—a situation that was not lost on him. “I cannot believe this,” he said between songs. “The last time I stood on this stage I was filming a music video and there was not a soul here. I was dreaming of the day when it would be filled completely, and so here we are.” Throughout his set, Brice demonstrated his prowess and versatility for songwriting and entertaining. The show had peaks and valleys, and while his more tender songs like “I Don’t Dance,” “Love Like Crazy” and “More Than a Memory” silenced the room, tracks like “Drinking Class,” “Parking Lot Party” and “Beer” transformed the Mother Church of Country Music into a tailgate party, showcasing the best of both worlds.
One of the most special nights of my life. Thank you so much.—
Lee Brice (@leebrice) February 25, 2015
6. UMG at the Ryman Luncheon
On Thursday afternoon (Feb. 26), UMG hosted a two-hour showcase at the Ryman. While some artists performed their latest single, others opted to do something brand new. David Nail, Eric Church, Keith Urban, Darius Rucker and Chris Stapleton all debuted songs that have yet been revealed to the masses. Meanwhile, new duo Brothers Osborne received a standing ovation for what will be their next single, “Stay A Little Longer.” It is impossible to pick a favorite performance as each artist showcased their powerhouse singing entering the stage alone with an acoustic guitar and soaking in the acoustics of the Ryman. The perfect end to the showcase, Urban invited Church to sing their newest single, “Raise ‘Em Up.”
Got a standing ovation yesterday at the Ryman after our acoustic performance of Stay A Little Longer. Surreal. http://t.co/3hj0gHn33U—
Brothers Osborne (@brothersosborne) February 27, 2015
7. Keith Urban’s Panel on ‘Being Present’
Keith Urban wrapped up the seminar’s panel sessions and rightfully so. Throughout his hour-long chat, Urban revealed how he stays present in all aspects of his life. Whether it’s music, family or American Idol duties, the “Raise ‘Em Up” singer raised several important points on how to live a fulfilling life. “I’m just a human. You can’t be all things to all people all the time,” he said. “I find I have a lot more calm when I stay in the moment.” Throughout the afternoon he revealed that he, too, gets nervous at radio meet and greets because, “I sometimes don’t know what to say.” He also reflected on the importance of preserving country music’s traditions and for artists to know the history of the genre. “Our genre is like a church. We have to maintain certain set traditions.”
8. Striking Matches Jaw-Dropping Guitar Skills
Striking Matches is a new Nashville-based duo who will release their T Bone Burnett-produced debut album in March. From their showcase at Nashville’s ACME on Thursday evening (Feb. 26), it is evident this is a band to watch. Made up of Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, the duo trade guitar licks and vocals like we’ve never heard before. Highlights from their performance include the rowdy “Trouble Is As Trouble Does,” upcoming single “Hanging On a Lie” and the emotional “When the Right One Comes Along.”
9. New Faces Showcase Highlights Best New Country Talent
Since 1970, CRS has been featuring the best upcoming talent each year with their New Faces of Country Music Showcase. This year, the series celebrated Frankie Ballard, Sam Hunt, Eric Paslay, Maddie & Tae and Cole Swindell. Each artist took the stage to perform a few of their songs and give their thanks to radio for spinning what would become most of their first No. 1 singles. While Hunt brought his hip-hop and pop influenced style of country, Ballard brought the rock. Dressed in a leather jacket, it was the first time Ballard performed with a guitar since his stage fall earlier this month. Meanwhile, Maddie & Tae hushed the room with their poignant new single “Fly” before Paslay showed just why the songs he has written have reached the top of the charts. Swindell closed out the show with his energetic arena-ready sing-along tracks.
10. Lady Antebellum ‘3 Becomes One’ Panel
The major takeaway from Lady Antebellum’s CRS panel was the importance of communication in all aspects of life. Whether it’s a business decision or personal, you need to surround yourself with others for support. “You can’t go through life alone,” Hillary Scott advised. Lady A confessed that they saw a group communication therapist their first year as a band and it helped them realize the importance of open communication which they took into all aspects of their career, including selecting singles. They admitted that they never thought “Need You Now” would be a single but their label’s excitement changed their mind. Additionally, Charles Kelley stressed the importance of the band’s evolution which can be heard on tracks like “Freestyle.” “We wanted to make a bold statement and do something different,” he said. “We can have some songs not work as long as it was a bold decision and we weren’t playing it safe. Every time we’ve made a decision out of fear it hasn’t worked. It’s all part of the journey.”