BLOG: AristoMedia Impressions and Digressions from CRS-40

The 40th anniversary of Country Radio Seminar wrapped up recently in Nashville, where I spent the better part of three days listening & learning, walking & talking, meeting & greeting, reading & writing, eating & drinking and rockin’ & reflecting.
Truth be told, it was my first CRS, and from everything I’d been told, I could expect to meet a lot of disillusioned, disenchanted and generally discouraged radio folks trying to find cover from the sky falling overhead. What I found, however, was generally the opposite. Sure, I did meet more than a few folks who had lost their jobs and could be heard swapping stories about the good ol’ days ad nauseam, but yet here they were - hunkered down at another CRS, networking for all they were worth and trying to figure out exactly where this industry was headed.
As a publicity guy, I was pretty short on answers - not that anyone was asking me for any, of course. But in general, I’ve got the same fair share of fears and anxieties as the next guy in this business, so I did a lot of listening whenever I could. And for all the understandable concerns and uncertainty expressed by the masses in the ballrooms and exhibition halls, there was also a lot of expectation and determined optimism at CRS-40. There were plenty of memorable moments, of course, from the unabashedly hilarious (Merle Haggard’s speech at the Hall of Fame ceremony) to the regrettably somber (news of Irby Mandrell’s passing) to the downright electric (Friday night’s Zac Brown Band performance). So, in case you missed it, skipped it or just can’t remember it… here’s a few highlights from this year’s 40th anniversary of Country Radio Seminar.

Tuesday, March 3

Photo Credit: Bev Moser/CRB

Tuesday night unofficially kicked off the CRS festivities with the annual Country Music DJ and Radio Hall of Fame ceremonies. This year, Shelia Shipley Biddy received the President’s Award, Merle Haggard eventually left with the Career Achievement Award, Chuck Collier and Gerry House were inducted into the DJ Hall of Fame, and Bob McKay and Moon Mullins were inducted into the Radio Hall of Fame.
Haggard, as widely reported, “accepted” his award by taking the opportunity to berate former CBS Records exec Rick Blackburn for dismissing his “Kern River” as a hit years before - repeatedly. Haggard proceeded to call Blackburn “the dumbest sonofabitch I’ve ever met” before wheeling without a word and tottering off stage, leaving his award and a standing ovation behind.
The ceremony also included a pair of Haggard songs earlier in the evening, one performed by Jack Ingram (”Are the Good Times Really Over”) and the other by Emmylou Harris (the aforementioned “Kern River,” which seemed to spark both Hag’s memory and contempt for Blackburn).
Wednesday, March 4
Seth Godin Photo Credit: Bev Moser/CRB
The optimistic tone on Wednesday was set early in the day during this year’s keynote address, delivered by renowned marketing expert and best-selling author Seth Godin. I can’t tell you how many people I heard discussing this speech over the course of the next couple of days. If nothing else, Godin certainly had people buzzing with his talk about creating your own “tribe” and the abundance of opportunities in a fragmenting media landscape. He definitely seemed to have everyone energized, all before lunch on the first day!
Immediately following the keynote address, rising outlaw-country star Jamey Johnson played a free show outside the Convention Center to a jam-packed street of CRS attendees and curious onlookers. Inside, the Golden Music label showcase was the featured lunch event for the day, featuring performances by newcomers Williams Riley and Benton Blount. KCRS Live! was the first songwriter event of CRS-40, providing an in-the-round format with Jimmy Wayne, Jonathan Singleton, Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace.
Tim McGraw Photo Credit: Bev Moser/CRB
The much anticipated event of the day for most was Wednesday night’s Music City Jam, featuring superstar Tim McGraw. Even before the first note was played, however, next year’s headliner was announced, and it was a BIG one: teen superstar Taylor Swift, who greeted the audience via pre-recorded video from Australia. Attendees would still have to wait a little longer for McGraw to show though, as a bevy of artists proceeded to take the stage: Lance Miller, Halfway to Hazard, Lori McKenna, Catherine Raney and even Alabama’s Randy Owen, who won this year’s Artist Humanitarian Award. Finally, McGraw himself emerged, only to play a head-scratcher of a set that included nothing but new songs. Still, it wasn’t a bad way to wrap up the first official day of Country Radio Seminar.

Thursday, March 5
Thursday, also known as ‘Music Industry Town Meeting Day’ was a day largely dedicated to thought-provoking panels, seminars and research presentations. Remarkably, the agenda managed to cram in “40 Great Programming Ideas in 40 Minutes,” “40 New Media Ideas in 40 Minutes,” the largest study in the 50-year history of the CMA, and a host of additional informative panels all before lunch! For those who were lucid enough to comprehend CMA’s segmentation study at nine o’clock in the morning, some valuable insight into the makeup of the modern country music consumer was presented. Most notably, that they perceive radio as being too repetitive and limited in their song selection. Who’d have thought?
Miranda Lambert Photo Credit: Bev Moser/CRB
A well-needed lunch followed, sponsored by Sony Music Entertainment and hosted by CNN’s Robin Meade. Newcomer Jake Owen and the dynamo known as Miranda Lambert tore it up onstage, delivering an energetic and entertaining performance each. Owen closed his set with his new single, “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You,” while Miranda delivered the goods with “Kerosene,” “Famous In a Small Town” and “Gunpowder and Lead,” among others. After her performance, Sony Chairman Joe Galante emerged to present Lambert with a plaque commemorating Gold status on single downloads and ringtones for “Gunpowder and Lead.”
After lunch, it was back to the panels. At this point, I started taking the elevator everywhere I went instead of the stairs. I’m all for exercise, but it was becoming evident that I was going to need my energy if I was going to make it through the rest of CRS…
The mid-afternoon “Changing World of Retail, Radio and Records” panel was particularly interesting, as industry execs discussed and shared different perspectives on how the industry is redefining the way they operate. The general consensus seemed to be that while there is no clear-cut answer to today’s problems, managers, label operations and radio personnel have to communicate more clearly with each other and make a concerted effort to work together in order to survive.
Thursday’s songwriter event, WCRS Live! was packed, thanks to performances from Josh Turner, Jamey Johnson, Paul Overstreet and Bobby Pinson, but turned out to be just a prelude to some of the shows around town that night. Apparently my invitation got lost in the mail, but I heard the Sony Boat Show was quite the event. Kenny Chesney, Martina McBride, Montgomery Gentry (with Steppenwolf’s John Kay!), Gretchen Wilson, Craig Morgan, Jason Michael Carroll, Carrie Underwood, Brad Paisley and some guy named Frampton all performed. Yes, Peter Frampton. Seriously. However, if you “missed the boat,” don’t worry, you could still see Keith Urban at the Rutledge. Or Jamey Johnson and Holly Williams at The Stage. If you could still stand.

Friday, March 6
Friday was unquestionably the highlight of my first Country Radio Seminar. ‘Radio Sales Day’ started with a great presentation by Country Radio Broadcasters, Inc. and Edison Research. It was the fourth year this particular research project had been conducted and presented at CRS, and it revealed a LOT of information. Interestingly, researchers found that 1 out of 2 listeners thought country radio played the same song to the point that it became “annoying.” Hmmm. Sound familiar? No, really - sound familiar? Anyway, suffice it to say that several more panels during the day made for some interesting discussions, most notably during the PTI session (a spin-off of ESPN’s Pardon The Interruption), which paired a handful of radio and record label execs with artists Heidi Newfield and a beer-swilling Blake Shelton, who at one point wondered aloud, “I don’t understand why we have to sell a digital download of a single before it comes out?” Unlike the real PTI, there were no commercial breaks.
Little Big Town Photo Credit: Bev Moser/CRB
Fortunately, Capitol’s lunch was a break in its own right, with stellar performances from Little Big Town, whose harmonies were richer than Tuesday night’s cheesecake and earned them a standing ovation, and pop-star-gone-country-singer Darius Rucker.
The Life of a Legend series was especially poignant this year, as Kix Brooks interviewed Barbara Mandrell. Mandrell’s father, Irby, passed away the day before, but the thought of skipping the event never crossed her mind. “My dad told me to be here today,” she said.
Probably the most anticipated event at CRS, The New Faces of Country Music Show and Dinner kicked off at 6:30 pm, but not before newcomer Adam Gregory jump-started the crowd with a performance at the New Faces cocktail reception. The young artist entertained the crowd with a set of songs from his forthcoming Big Machine release, including a clever cover of Justin Timberlake’s “What Goes Around Comes Around.”
New Faces Photo Credit: Bev Moser/CRB
This year’s New Faces lineup showcased performances from The Zac Brown Band, Kellie Pickler, James Otto, Chuck Wicks and Lady Antebellum, and after a delicious dinner (the food was fantastic the whole week, by the way) the crowd settled in for nearly three hours of great music. The Zac Brown Band started the evening with a down-home, feel-good set which closed with a frenetic, finger-pickin’ crescendo in “Chicken Fried.” Poor Chuck Wicks had to follow that performance, but did so admirably, as many ladies informed me. Despite an uncooperative pants zipper, Kellie Pickler delivered her set with authority, and James Otto had the crowd swaying in their seats to his country-soul sound, which included his hit “Just Got Started Lovin’ You.” Finally, Lady Antebellum closed out the show with a set that included “Love Don’t Live Here,” as well as an intriguing (or perhaps disturbing) intro video that featured the leotard-clad trio, along with Luke Bryan, dancing to Beyonce’s “Single Ladies.” And just like that, CRS-40 was over.
Or was it?
Turns out, not quite. Those that still had the energy ended up at Cadillac Ranch, where co-sponsored a unique concert event called the 40th Anniversary Jam: A Musical Thanks to Radio.
Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert Photo Credit: Bev Moser/CRB
It was the first year for the show, which boasted nearly two-dozen artists covering their favorite songs from the last four decades. The house was PACKED and was treated to performances by, among others, Emerson Drive (”Fishin’ In The Dark”), Julianne Hough (”Heartache Tonight”), James Otto (”Easy”), Chuck Wicks (”Driving My Life Away”), Darryl Worley (”The Best Of My Love”), Jimmy Wayne (”Sara Smile”) and Blake Shelton, who was joined for a special performance of the Bellamy Brothers classic “If I Said You Had A Beautiful Body” by girlfriend Miranda Lambert.
A good time was had by all, as were several too many cocktails, I’m afraid. I have to say though, it was a great way to close out the 40th anniversary of CRS… Radio folks sure can party!
CRS-41 will be held Feb. 24-26, 2010.
See you there!

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