For the few artists chosen to participate, playing the New Faces of Country Music show to close out Country Radio Seminar is one of the toughest gigs they’ll ever experience.
Removed from their typical club setting, performers in those coveted spots are subjected to a ballroom full of influential radio tastemakers dining on filet mignon at banquet tables. Not the ideal place to lose oneself in the music, to say the least, but the performances can often solidify radio’s investment in an act.
Even so, the performers at the 2016 New Faces show (held February 10th at Nashville’s Omni Hotel) largely managed to slice through any indifference by focusing on their unique points. And as a lineup — Cam, Brothers Osborne, Kelsea Ballerini, Old Dominion and Chris Janson — they were perhaps one of the most diverse assortments of New Faces performers in years, even though “new” isn’t really applicable in a couple cases.
That could be said for Chris Janson, whose introductory video highlighted the Missouri native’s 10-year journey of homelessness and poverty before leading into the night’s most thrilling, energetic set. The wiry Janson moved with confidence, strutting in his peculiar angular manner between hot blasts of harmonica, while songs like “Back in My Drinkin’ Days” and “White Trash” felt like authentic glimpses into his life before music. But the show-stopping moment was Janson’s vulnerable performance of “Holdin’ Her,” a ballad about the way his wife and kids have changed his life — after that, his Number One hit “Buy Me a Boat” was a celebratory victory lap. There’s a reason his set came dead last in the program: no one could have followed him.
But the other performers found their own ways to connect.
Cam was charm incarnate, lobbing the sunniest F-bomb ever uttered between her songs. Though she wrapped up with two slower numbers — current single “Mayday” and a crowd sing-along of Number One smash “Burning House — her set still glowed with warmth.
Kelsea Ballerini was an enthusiastic cheerleader for country music, walking the line between sass and sincerity with her song choices. Brothers Osborne made gutsy selections like the gospel rave-up “It Ain’t My Fault” and waltz-time “Lovin’ Me Back” before winning the crowd’s approval with John Osborne’s extended guitar solo on “Stay a Little Longer.” Only Old Dominion fell a little flat with a set that was mostly error (and emotion) free, despite likable tunes such as “Break Up With Him.”
Each of the five acts has one major hit to his or her credit, and each has a new single out: Ballerini with “Peter Pan,” Old Dominion with “Snapback,” Janson with “Power of Positive Drinkin’,” Cam with “Mayday” and Brothers Osborne with just-released “21 Summer.” All are competing for airplay against superstars like Luke Bryan, Jason Aldean and Carrie Underwood.
If the point of New Faces is to showcase the most promising new (relatively speaking) country radio talent, the 2016 edition made a compelling case that programmers will have abundant options when it comes to making playlist decisions.