After three days of music from some of the most promising stars in country, the best was saved for last at the 2022 Country Radio Seminar in Nashville. Gabby Barrett, Walker Hayes, Lainey Wilson, Jameson Rodgers and Parker McCollum closed the event off with the coveted New Faces showcase.
Taking place at the Omni Nashville in downtown Music City, the CRS event might not be familiar to fans, since it’s not open to the public. Instead, this industry-only weekend is kind of an old school mix of business and fun that is still a big deal, gathering many of the radio executives who control the nation’s airwaves into one spot each year. It gives hopeful artists a chance to make a big impression with those gatekeepers, and they do that both personally and on stage, with the New Faces showcase being the ultimate prize.
Reserved for rising stars who have had early success, and now seem primed to blow up huge in the year ahead, the show is the climax of each CRS, and one of the few moments where nearly all attendees are in one spot. It’s also sometimes a predictor of future success, since over the years everyone from Tim McGraw to Blake Shelton to Taylor Swift and countless more have gotten the “New Faces” honor. So, those performing tend to give it their all.
Parker McCollum started things off for 2022, arriving on stage in his signature cold chain-and-ball cap combo and thanking country radio for his breakout success. The tall Texan scored an outside the-box Number One with the self-incriminating “Pretty Heart” in 2020, and delivered that tune along with his current single, “To Be Loved by You,” which just entered the Top 5. Both set him apart as a modern-day lonesome cowboy, and with the bluesy “I Can’t Breathe,” the ACM Awards nominee showed that well of inspiration is nothing new.
Next up was Gabby Barrett, who many could argue has already outgrown her “New Face” title. After scoring country radio’s most-played song of 2020 with “I Hope,” her powerhouse vocals were no stranger to the programmers, and her profile will only rise next week. Barrett will co-host the ACM Awards alongside Jimmie Allen with Dolly Parton, but for CRS, she kept things down to earth.
Thanking those in attendance for the song that “flipped my world around,” “I Hope” was delivered like a seething revenge rocker alongside her guitar-playing husband, Cade Foehner (who was sporting a short new haircut). “Jesus and My Mama” strutted with attitude, and “Good One” found the couple swaying shoulder to shoulder, while the comfortable “Pick Me Up” rolled out easy and inviting, all pick up trucks and young love. That breezy mid-tempo is Barrett’s current radio single, but she also made time for faith, performing a verse of “How Great Thou Art” with Fohener strumming along.
Elsewhere, Jameson Rodgers brought the party, kicking his full band into overdrive for “Cold Beer Callin’ My Name,” and getting a few in the crowd to rock out at their table with “Some Girls” — both of which were Number Ones. A hit songwriter as well, Rodgers also uncorked the Chris Lane hit “I Don’t Know About You,” and finished up with his brooding current single, “Missin’ One.”
With the night beginning to wind down, Lainey Wilson offered a pick me up with both style and substance, arriving with a Saturday Night Live-style skit that found her playing four different characters at once. A hardcore Dolly Parton-type in bell bottoms and a wide-brimmed hat, she proved to have more than jokes to offer, however, pairing the rowdy “Straight Up Sideways” with her thoughtful hit “Things a Man Oughta Know” and next single “Heart Like a Truck.” Rolling slow and steady with Southern rock slide guitars, it was a moving tribute to those who have seen some rough country, but are still running strong.
“This is for anybody who’s been through hard times, anybody’s who’s been through heartbreak,” Wilson said from the stage. “I’m sure every single one of you all got a heart like a truck.”
Finally, it was up to Walker Hayes to close the show — and to finish off CRS 2022 once and for all. Everyone in attendence knew where that was going and Hayes didn’t waste any time, jumping into 2021’s defining hit “Fancy Like” and bouncing around in celebration of those who love a good cheap date. Likewise, “Drinking Songs” and “AA” found fun, upbeat ways to sing the hungover blues, but Hayes stunned the radio jocks into a rare standing ovation with his finale. It was not what anyone expected.
Taking time to remember his father, who passed away last year, Hayes remarked that no one was a bigger fan of country radio than his dad. Hayes’ dad called local Mobile, Alabama, station 95-KSJ so many times that “Bill Black had a restraining order on him,” the singer joked, and then dedicated “The Briefcase” to him.
Sending his band backstage, Hayes quietly strummed an acoustic guitar and let the circle-of-life story song unfold, with his voice sometimes cracking and the room so still you could have heard a pin drop. All about the difficult relationship between father and soon — especially one who loves his work so much it keeps him away — it found Hayes coming to terms not just with the man his father was, but the man he had become as well, with a few sniffles heard in the audience. It was a pure country moment of the highest order, and not a bad way to finish CRS at all.