A bevy of country stars come out to play for the people who pick what goes out on the airwaves. But will these songs be tomorrow's hits — or misses?

By Nancy Kruh
February 22, 2019 04:55 PM
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Nancy Kruh

Keith Urban is still riding the wave of his “Graffiti U” world tour — and current single “Never Comin Down” is still climbing the charts — but last week he surprised the national gathering of country radio broadcasters with new music.

How new?

So new that the 51-year-old singer had to stop mid-chorus during his acoustic performance at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium.

“Oh my gosh, I forgot the words of the damn song!” he exclaimed. “Literally fresh! Brand new!”

He paused to chuckle at his gaffe, then told a secret on himself: “Normally, this is what I’d do if I forgot the words,” he said, imitating the stuttered sound of singing when a mic cord shorts out. “And then I’d reel the mic cord.” He frowned and pointed to his cordless mic. “But there is none.”

It didn’t take long for the reigning CMA entertainer of the year to collect himself and finish “We Were,” a mid-tempo ballad that — in Urban’s defense — contains lyrics that most would find tricky to memorize, let alone sing at such a fast clip (“We were leather jackets hanging on to a Harley, two heartbeats in the moonlight …”).

In the end, the song was warmly received — but will it find a place in the upper reaches of radio’s charts? That question hangs over the entire abundance of new music that’s performed each year at the Country Radio Seminar. For three days every February, Nashville record labels woo the star-makers of country’s airwaves with live showcases, hoping an artist with a fresh song or sound will catch their ear and turn it into radio play.

Sometimes it works like gangbusters. Who could forget Urban debuting future No. 1 “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16” at UMG’s Ryman show in 2015? Sometimes, a performance can turn into a slow burn. That same year, a relative unknown named Chris Stapleton sang “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” during the same show. It never entered the radio charts, but Stapleton obviously made an impression. (This year, he did a star turn, performing current top 10 single “Millionaire.”) Of course, in this musical roulette of a town, there also are the inevitable wannabes who get their shot and fade away.

So, with this year’s crop of CRS performances as your guide, here’s what else you may be hearing in the coming months on country radio:

Dierks Bentley
Peyton Hoge for Universal Music Group

More new songs from hit-makers: Fresh off his latest No. 1, “Burning Man,” Dierks Bentley auditioned his next single, “Living,” with lyrics that offer him more opportunity for self-reflection. Still celebrating their home runs with “Tequila” and “Speechless,” Dan + Shay reminded everyone that sexy new single “All to Myself” is now on deck. Chris Janson rollicked through fresh single “Good Vibes,” showing up as his own one-man band with guitar, harmonica and kick drum.

Chris Janson
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Previewing one of his favorites off his upcoming album, Jon Pardi introduced the most weirdly wonderful pickup line since Jordan Davis’ “if he ever singles you up.” So goes Pardi’s: “I want tequila little time with you / a little salt and lime with you.”

Jon Pardi
Peyton Hoge for Universal Music Group

More feminine-powered songs: Maren Morris is already making a splash with “Girl,” the first single off her album, which drops March 8. At CRS, Little Big Town’s calling card for their new music was a song with a feminist refrain: “I’ve heard of God the Son and God the Father / I’m just looking for a God for the daughters.” (Karen Fairchild didn’t mention a title in her intro.) Ashley McBryde showed off her signature grit in new single, “Girl Goin’ Nowhere.” And two newcomers dug deep with more message songs: Kassi Ashton confronted feminine stereotypes with “Pretty Shiny Things,” and Tenille Townes tackled homelessness with “Somebody’s Daughter.”

Ashley McBryde
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Lindsay Ell and Brantley Gilbert
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More of what you’re liking already: Several artists chose to keep a foot on the accelerator, performing songs that are beginning to find traction on the charts. Brantley Gilbert and Lindsay Ell thrilled the CRS audience by performing their new duet, “What Happens in a Small Town,” together for the first time. No stranger to sell-out crowds, neo-traditionalist Cody Johnson showed why he also is finding a comfy home on radio with “On My Way to You.” Following the success of “Breakup in the End,” Cole Swindell returned to the well of heartbreak with new single “Love You Too Late.” And Riley Green did a victory lap with “There Was This Girl,” his first top 10 single.

Cody Johnson
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More from worthy hopefuls: Several artists asked for new consideration to songs that have been looking for momentum for a few months now. Morgan Evans brought his good cheer to “Day Drunk” — a monster No. 1 hit in his native Australia — and Walker Hayes served “90’s Country” sunny side up; both songs have a definite summer vibe if they can hang on a little longer.

Morgan Evans
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Devin Dawson reminded the radio crowd of his classic combination of coolness and charisma with autobiographical “Dark Horse.” Maddie & Tae, who hit a career reboot when they changed labels last year, were looking to build buzz over their Juddsy harmonies on “Die From a Broken Heart,” presumed to be their next single and already racking up significant streams.

Taylor Dye and Maddie Marlow of Maddie & Tae
Peyton Hoge for Universal Music Group

More from newcomers: Will country radio give any newbies featured at CRS a spot in the rotation? Besides Tenille Townes and Kassi Ashton, other fresh faces who earned a CRS spotlight included Adam Hambrick, Caylee Hammack, Hardy, Lauren Jenkins, King Calaway, Brandon Lay and Noah Schnacky.

Kassi Ashton
Peyton Hoge for Universal Music Group

All have label support, and there’s talent behind every name. None of them ring a bell? If they’re tomorrow’s stars, remember you heard about them here first. If not, blame the roulette.