Luke Bryan, Chris Stapleton, Dierks Bentley Tug at Hearts with Soul-Baring Songs — as Sam Hunt Reveals Wedding Timeline
“I tell you what,” Bryan said, “when I’m checking my socials [media], and I’m seeing so many of you guys that are lifting my family up, I really appreciate it. It means the world to me.”
Bryan, 40, was the surprise lead-off performer on the star-packed bill, and he set the tone for Universal Music Group’s annual showcase during the Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. The event offers the opportunity for UMG artists to “audition” new material to the people who pick radio playlists. The 14 performers could offer only one of their songs, and several — like Bryan – opted for material that resonated with personal, poignant, even painful, meaning.
“This is a special song for me, and certainly special this week,” Bryan said before launching into his new single, “Fast,” about the swift passage of life.
“This is sort of a new song, but an old song – for me,” he told the crowd at Ryman Auditorium. “It’s a song about people who passed away before their time. I recorded this on a day a friend of mine passed away from pancreatic cancer. He was the same age as me. We played Little League together, stuff like that. He was 38 years old. So this is for my buddy Mike.”
Though her upbeat “Road Less Traveled” is now in the Top 10, Lauren Alaina instead chose “Three,” a gut-wrenching summary of the personal upheavals she’s endured for the reward of getting a three-minute song on the radio. “It usually makes me cry,” she warned the audience, “so I’m going to do my best. So don’t look at me with pouty eyes because it’s a trigger for me.”
Alaina, 22, stayed dry-eyed but her listeners were overcome from her emotion, rewarding the singer with a much-coveted standing ovation.
After joking that he might get a “sympathy ovation,” Dierks Bentley seemed shocked that he earned one honestly with a tender rendering of “Can’t Be Replaced,” a song off his latest album inspired by the death of his beloved dog, Jake.
“This song, I don’t know if it’ll see the light of day [as a single],” Bentley, 42, said, “but it’s one of my favorites off the record.”
Darius Rucker, who just completed his fifth country album, offered a soul-baring performance of its lead-off single, “If I Told You,” which features lyrics that recount shortcomings to a new love. Though Rucker, 50, didn’t write the tune, he declared it “the most real song I’ve ever been a part of. It’s me. It’s who I am.”
Sam Hunt had marriage very much on his mind as he slipped into his playful, intimate new single, “Body Like a Back Road.” His engagement to Hannah Lee Fowler became news only in early January, and he revealed to his Nashville audience that it will be a short one.
“I’m getting married in a couple months,” Hunt, 32, told the crowd. “Between planning a wedding and keeping my fiancée smiling, I’m gonna try to kick up some new music for y’all.”
Vince Gill, a perennial favorite at the event even though he no longer charts singles, tugged at hearts with “a sweet song I wrote for my wife,” contemporary Christian artist Amy Grant. Gill, 59, explained he wrote “When My Amy Prays” for Grant’s birthday “because I had not gotten her anything good for her birthday. And I said maybe I can write a song, and I’ll still be okay. She’ll let me in the house. I had to be pretty truthful, and somewhat vulnerable, for myself.”
Following Gill, Keith Urban offered his friend incentive to hit the recording studio. “Vince, your song killed me,” Urban declared before launching into his own weeper: a reprise from his Nashville New Year’s Eve concert of an acoustic medley honoring musical legends who died in 2016.
Not about to leave the crowd in a puddle, Urban, 49, quickly capped the afternoon concert with the buoyant doo-wop sounds of his chart-topping “Blue Ain’t Your Color.” His guitar solo beckoned Stapleton and Gill back to the stage, instruments in tow, and three of Nashville’s finest guitar virtuosos sent their audience off with a jubilant, heart-lifting jam.