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Country Radio Seminar: Rockers come calling

Jon Bon Jovi and John Mellencamp made the scene along with Dierks Bentley and Keith Urban at Nashville’s big annual event

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What South by Southwest is to the rock world each year, Country Radio Seminar is to the universe of country music. Except that at SXSW, key artists have a choice about whether or not to show up; at CRS, which draws nearly 3,000 industry registrants, you’d be hard pressed to find a minor or major country artist who doesn’t feel obligated to put in an appearance. One late night last week, Keith Urban did his first post-rehab show, on the spur of the moment, at Nashville’s City Hall nightclub; simultaneously, within a radius of just a few blocks, Big & Rich were putting on one of their live free-for-alls, while Bon Jovi rode in on their steel horse to the Cannery club.

Bon Jovi? At Country Radio Seminar? No joke: The band is now on a country label, Mercury Nashville, and came to CRS to promote their forthcoming crossover album, Lost Highway. (Presumably they named the CD and title track after Hank Williams’ famous tune of the same name, but since they weren’t the first rockers to title a song ”I’ll Sleep When I’m Dead,” the homage might not be intentional.) Jon Bon Jovi even got up early that morning to deliver the keynote address for the conference, telling the assembled jocks and program directors, ”It’s not the traditional country music that I knew as a child….We made a Bon Jovi record that’s influenced by Nashville, instead of a rhinestone cowboy thing.” That night, they played a 50-minute set of mostly new material, book-ended by a few oldies, but no one should expect a major roots move. The group’s soon-to-be-released ”country” stuff sounded a lot like big, classic, anthem-y Bon Jovi, but with a barely audible female fiddle player, plus a keyboardist doing some faux pedal steel licks on a synth.

Bon Jovi weren’t the only slumming mainstream rockers looking to pick up some support in the less fickle country market. John Mellencamp came to Nashville to do a short ”surprise” set at the conclusion of a performance by Little Big Town, who recently toured with him as well as sang on much of his new Freedom’s Road album. Mellencamp, who’s promoting two of his new songs to country radio, was predictably greeted as a visiting hero, even though his upstart pals Little Big Town just went platinum and Mellencamp will do well to cross the 200K mark with this effort. Meanwhile, Sheryl Crow, a part-time Nashvillian who’ll soon start work on her own long-delayed country album, sat in on a weekend headlining set by cult Texas rocker-turned-country-star Jack Ingram, who’s currently rising on the charts with a countrified cover of Hinder’s hard-rock ballad ”Lips of an Angel.” Keeping all this crossover straight?

CRS ”secret show” highlights included Dierks Bentley dropping into Legends Corner — one of the old honky-tonks along Nashville’s legendary ”Lower Broad” street — to do a lengthy all-covers set. Bentley used to perform in these same bars as a struggling wannabe, performing country classics for tips while trying to sneak his original material in; this time, he reversed the equation, doing his own hits only when cash got dropped in the jar, but otherwise sticking with ’50s and ’60s jukebox favorites by the likes of Johnny Cash and Buck Owens. Miranda Lambert, who’s about to release an excellent sophomore effort, was one of those ”tipping” her old tourmate Bentley — but she slipped out before he was done to head over to a conference room at the Renaissance Hotel where the Wreckers were playing for a few dozen rowdies. This time, she didn’t just make requests but got on stage to harmonize on hits like ”Leave the Pieces.”

The most popular cover song of the week appeared to be Merle Haggard’s ”Mama Tried,” which first popped up — characteristically — in Bentley’s traditionalist-themed performance. Less predictably, Keith Urban played it the following night, while also dipping into the not-quite-so distant past for some of his outside material, which included Tommy Tutone’s ”867-5309,” John Fogerty’s ”Rock and Roll Girls,” and a snippet of INXS’ ”I Need You Tonight” in addition to a full phalanx of his own hits during a generous two-hour-plus set. Ronnie Dunn came on stage for a duet and saluted the star for having gone to rehab, a slightly ironic moment given that pretty much everyone in the room but Urban looked to be three, four, or possibly five sheets to the wind. (Any less high-profile recovering alcoholic might do well to steer clear of CRS, which just might have the highest per-capita open bar quotient of any gathering in the world.)

Some stars who refrained performing had invitation-only listening parties. Martina McBride had radio folks over to her producer husband’s state-of-the-art studio, Blackbird, to preview her April release, Waking Up Laughing, which sounded less slick and more (believe it or not) Americana-ish than her previous work. Tim McGraw borrowed the same studio to premiere his first album in three years, Let It Go, which might well repeat the quadruple-platinum status of its predecessor. But in the oddest premiere, on SonyBMG’s annual ”boat show” — a three-hour dinner that takes place on a riverboat — Brad Paisley debuted his romantic new single, the key line of which is: ”I want to check you for ticks.” (We’re gonna make the call for a Song of the Year Grammy right here.) This year’s boat show was the first since Sony’s and BMG’s Nashville operations merged, meaning that thrushes like Carrie Underwood, Gretchen Wilson, Sara Evans, and McBride are all officially labelmates now — and all four formed a chorus line to back Skynyrd offshoot Van Zant on a climactic ”Sweet Home Alabama.”

Oh, and the daytime seminars? Country radio is by far the dominant musical radio format in the nation, and if there was any lesson to be drawn, it was that they plan to stay that way through exhaustive research, research, and more listener research, despite the pleas of a few label execs for the format’s music directors to stop doing so much testing and start programming from their guts. Now, if we could only get those focus groups — which are presumably largely made up of upper-demo suburban soccer moms, the format’s primary target — as liquored up as all the 3,000 gleeful CRS attendees, maybe we’d get even better music on the air.