Superstars and up-and-comers alike had a moment to shine at the Team UMG Luncheon

By Nancy Kruh
Updated December 01, 2020 10:05 PM
Credit: Courtesy Nancy Kruh

Oh, to be a fly on the wall of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for this insiders-only country show.

For nearly two hours on Thursday, 16 country artists played an array of new releases, about-to-be-releases and a few surprises fresh out of the writing fires.

From the superstars to the up-and-comers, the performers – all represented by the Universal Music Group conglomerate – each had a moment to shine before the several hundred programmers, deejays and other assorted station staffers gathered for the annual Country Radio Seminar.

The show climaxed with an unannounced appearance by Keith Urban, who earned a standing ovation before he even sang a note. After surprising the audience with an unreleased single “John Cougar, John Deere and John 3:16,” he brought back to the stage Eric Church to perform “Raise ‘Em Up,” their duet that appears on Urban’s latest album, Fuse.

“You take her by the hand, make a stand, buy some land, make some love … and then babies come,” Urban sang, lingering over the familiar lyrics for new dad Church.

“That’s right,” Church responded with a big grin.

Earlier, during his solo stage appearance, Church proudly talked about the new baby, a second son named Tennessee Hawkins, whom he welcomed with his wife, Katherine, on Feb. 15.

“He’s 11 days old … and I’m tired,” the country rocker announced with a sigh. Though Church’s new single “Like a Wrecking Ball” is climbing the charts, he chose to play “something nobody’s ever heard before,” inspired by his grandfather, who developed Alzheimer’s disease when Church was a boy.

“The hardest thing was to have a relationship when that person doesn’t remember you,” Church told the crowd, but he went on to resolve that difficulty in the song’s poignant lyrics: “He doesn’t have to know me ’cause I know who he is.”

Church was one of several artists taking the stage who used personal tragedy as a muse.

Chris Stapleton, a genre-crossing singer known more for his songwriting skills, performed “Daddy Doesn’t Pray Anymore” for his late father, a coal miner who died in 2013. (Stapleton actually toted a piece of coal his father brought up from a mine to the stage for the performance.)

Canaan Smith spurned his hit single “Love You Like That” to offer “Bronco,” a tribute to his brother, who was killed in a car accident when Smith was a boy. And David Nail offered “Home,” a song that grew out of the sadness over the recent loss of his grandmother.

Other highlights of the musical revue included newcomer Mickey Guyton, who performed the unreleased bluesy single, “Nice Things,” standing a full five feet from the microphone, showcasing her impressive pipes – as well as the Ryman’s world-famous acoustics.

Kacey Musgraves previewed “Biscuits,” a single from her upcoming sophomore album that offers even more “Follow Your Arrow”-style advice: “Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy.” Darius Rucker gave a sneak of his new album with a co-write, “Southern Style.”

Vince Gill was the only artist to appear who didn’t have a new song to pitch, but at this point in his career, the Country Music Hall of Famer has nothing more to prove. That doesn’t mean he’s ready to stop recording – even though Top 40 country has stopped playing his songs.

Before launching into his ’90s hit “Whenever You Come Around,” Gill told his audience, “I’m not gonna quit sending you records.” Whether they’re ever played didn’t seem to matter to the affable singer: “Just rest assured, it’s okay either way.”