You certainly can’t blame even the most confident of artists for feeling a little nervous when performing before hundreds of radio programmers who can control their fate.
So it was completely understandable that many of the developing acts playing at the 2023 New Faces show, which closed out Country Radio Seminar in Nashville Wednesday night (March 15), expressed jitters.
“I’ll be honest with y’all, I always get a little nervous before a show, but I’m f—ing trembling tonight,” said Stony Creek/BBR act Jelly Roll, who closed the show. This sentiment came from a man who recently sold out Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena. “It’s not often you get to play for the people that changed your life,” he added, expressing largely the same words as his fellow Class of 2023 members.
Like Jelly Roll, Arista’s Nate Smith has already scored a No. 1 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, but he admitted to butterflies as well. “I’m shaking… I guess I’m alive,” he said. “Thank you country radio for letting me do this for a job.”
Hosted by Nights With Elaina syndicated radio host Elaina Smith, the evening opened with a tribute to Charlie Monk, co-founder of CRS and a 40-time host of the New Faces show, before Stoney Creek/BBR artist Frank Ray took the stage.
The smooth-voiced crooner started with “Country’d Look Good on You,” which the former cop took to No. 17 on Country Airplay in 2022. He multitasked on the next song, the beachy “Tequila Mockingbird,” breaking into Redbone’s 1974 hit “Come and Get Your Love” halfway through, while taking a shot of tequila from the audience. The energetic Ray followed with his new single, out March 20, the kiss-off song “Somebody Else’s Whiskey.” Next came party ode, “Y’all Showed Up,” before he concluded with “Streetlights,” which showed off his Latin roots, as he incorporated salsa dancers on stage and switched from English to Spanish, while adding bits of Luis Fonsi/Justin Bieber’s smash “Despacito” into the lyrics.
Big Machine’s Jackson Dean, who is on the road with Blake Shelton, followed Ray with his own brand of intense, brooding country rock, opening with an extended version of the thumping “Wings,” before segueing into unreleased track “Heavens to Betsy,” which he declared, “this is a damn good one.” His set included current single, “Fearless,” a mid-tempo love ballad (or as close as Dean gets to a love song). “Y’all have changed my life and the life of my band up here,” he said, thanking the radio programmers in the room. “Thank you for changing my life,” he said before he and his tight band broke into his swampy, driving No. 3 Country Airplay hit, “Don’t Come Lookin’”
Mercury/UMG Nashville act Priscilla Block, who is opening for Shania Twain on her spring tour, kicked off her set with “My Bar,” her feisty tune about not letting her ex run her off from her favorite watering hole, which reached No. 26 on the Country Airplay chart. She kept the drinking songs coming with stomping “Off the Deep End.” Discovering her glittery blue guitar was unplugged, she got a big laugh when she told the audience, “If this thing wasn’t a little bit of a shit show, y’all would probably be disappointed.” She found her stride on mid-tempo, twangy “Me Pt. 2,” written after she saw her ex boyfriend with his new girlfriend. She followed with “Just About Over You,” the TikTok viral song that helped her land her major label deal after it soared to No. 1 on iTunes Country Chart in June 2020. “I’ve always believed in myself, I was just waiting for other people to start believing in me,” she said before thanking Mike Dungan, outgoing CEO/chairman of UMG Nashville, for signing her. She finished by shot gunning a beer and throwing the can into the audience.
Smith’s rock leanings showed even before he hit the stage through his opening video that included Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Skrillex’s “Bangarang” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black.” The leather jacket-clad Arista/Sony Nashville artist took the stage with up-tempo track, “Name Stores After,” a tune off his self-titled debut coming April 28. Segueing into an impassioned performance of ballad “Wreckage,” Smith confessed his nerves, but it certainly showed no affect on his vocals, as he launched into the moving “Better Boy,” a recently-released track from the upcoming set before he powered through his recent two-week Country Airplay No. 1 “Whiskey on You,” showing off his considerable vocal power.
The evening ended with Jelly Roll, who took the audience to church with his songs of sin and redemption, storming onto stage screaming, “What’s up, mother f—ers?”
He raised the energy level in the room with the pulsating, “Halfway to Hell,” before moving into his current single, the rocking “Need a Favor,” which includes the trenchant line “I only pray when I ain’t got a prayer.” His January chart-topper “Son of A Sinner,” inspired one of the few singalongs of the night as radio programmers raised their phones in unison to film Jelly Roll, who jumped into the crowd to kiss Tracy Lawrence, who has received the Tom Rivers Humanitarian Award only moments before.
The Stoney Creek artist brought out Brantley Gilbert and Struggle Jennings for the intense-mid tempo propulsive hypnotic “Behind Bars” — as in “most of my friends are behind bars” — one of two songs on his June 2 debut, Whitsett Chapel, with guest features. He closed with “Save Me,” a song that he released a few years ago, but will get a new life on the new album. Singing in his upper register, Jelly Roll, who kicks off a 44-city headlining arena/amphitheater tour in July, pled for someone to save him from himself on the emotional power ballad. His raw authenticity gained him a well-deserved, standing ovation.
The New Faces acts, who are voted on by full-time employees involved in the programming, promotion and distribution of country music, must meet eligibility requirements, which include charting one, but no more than five, top 25 singles on any Mediabase or Luminate country chart.
Past New Faces artists include George Strait, Kathy Mattea, Travis Tritt, LeAnn Rimes, Brad Paisley, Zac Brown Band, Miranda Lambert, Florida Georgia Line, Sam Hunt, Kelsea Ballerini, Luke Combs, Brothers Osborne, Jimmie Allen and Lainey Wilson.