God bless Kellie Pickler. She isn’t everybody’s cup of Southern Comfort, but you can count on her for some emotionally unvarnished moments, even at a slick industry affair like the annual Country Radio Seminar, which just wrapped up in Nashville.

At CRS, superstars and newcomers alike vie to impress the folks who program radio’s dominant music format. One convention highlight is always the invite-only SonyBMG “boat show,” where the dominant label conglomerate in town takes hundreds of radio people out on a river cruise and serenades ’em with quickie sets from stars like Sara Evans, Gretchen Wilson, and Pickler (pictured at left), not to mention Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Miranda Lambert, etc. When Pickler’s turn came up, rather than do her frothy current single (“Things That Never Cross a Man’s Mind,” one of the best things at any format right now), she introduced a lonesome ballad she’s recording for her next album. “We wrote this at a particularly dark time in my life,” she told the crowd. “Which was just a couple of weeks ago.” After talking about how, at 21, she’s achieved all her dreams but feels like she has no one to share it with, she launched into the freshly penned “I Just Want Somebody to Love Me.” There was some nervous tittering as she rambled past her appointed time, and more than one mood-breaking (and possibly lecherous) shout of “I love you, Kellie!” But the way she was able to break the pomp and ceremony mood of a music-biz affair with a sincerely vulnerable moment further convinces me there might be an artist there, not just a Daisy Mae.

The other highlights of CRS week in Nashville tended to feel a bit less confessional, thought their pleasures were no less real. I’m convinced that one of the reasons people go into the country radio business in the first place is so they can attend this thing, since, just this year, it afforded the chance to see partial or complete sets from the likes of Paisley, Garth Brooks, Randy Travis, Taylor Swift, Jack Ingram, Trace Adkins, LeAnn Rimes, and dozens more in one fell four-day swoop.

For pure performance mania, there was no beating Paisley, who’s thebest all-around entertainer country music has right now. It was alittle disappointing, though, that for what is traditionally billed asthe “opening night jam,” its host, Paisley, the genre’s truest guitarshredder, chose to bring out just the three sedate singers who’ll beopening acts for him this summer, effectively turning it into a tourcommercial. (When I think “jam,” I don’t think Jewel, or Dancing with the Starsmainstay Julianne Hough.) But Paisley doesn’t need guests to be a goodhost; his jokes are enough, even if he probably didn’t originate theline about how what CRS really stands for, with its copious open bars,is “Can’t Remember S—.” Will someone please get this guy a gig ashost of the CMA Awards next November? (Maybe we could provoke some kindof superdelegate uprising to allow Brad to wrest control of this May’sACM Awards from Reba, as well.)

By day, when those open bars were closed and hungover attendees hungin at the daily seminars, there was a slight pall over the proceedings.Yes, country radio still dominates other music formats, and the genrestill has plenty of bragging rights when it comes to SoundScan stats. (“Take that, you pop sons of bitches!”said SonyBMG marketing VP Tom Baldrica, tongue only partly in cheek,trumpeting the news that Alan Jackson would have the best-selling albumin the nation on the next sales chart. Baldrica was cohosting the “boatshow” with miniskirted CNN Headline News babe Robin Meade, so you mightexcuse him if the blood were rushing to or from his head.) But formatratings were down in the latest period, as is the CD market share thatmade country look like the exception to the disastrous music-industryrule just a couple of years ago. The most powerful exec in town,SonyBMG chief Joe Galante, sounded a little wistful when he presentedPaisley with a plaque honoring him for selling 10 millionalbums — admitting to the assembled that there might not be too many ofthese given out in the future. And frankly, from the new-artistshowcases and advances being floated around, there was no evidence thatNashville is minting any new superstars to replace the ones who aresitting out the current malaise. Three to five years ago, there was anexcitement to CRS as truly fresh freshmen like Lambert, Wilson, Big& Rich, and Dierks Bentley made their mark at the convention. Butif there’s anyone being signed nowadays who has multiplatinumpotential, they are being kept well under wraps at a time when theyneed to be trotted out most.

The closing-night “New Faces” dinner and concert offered someinadvertent hints about why country music might be experiencing anun-galvanizing moment right now. This is a much anticipated affair thatspotlights the five newish, recently successful acts attendees havevoted they’d most like to hear. Taylor Swift closed the show on abarnstorming note, but what preceded her wasn’t a great advertisementfor the format’s vitality — basically amounting to a procession ofmale model-types (all hatless and with stringy, longish hair andblindingly white teeth, in case you haven’t been following genre trendslately) who lean toward rowdy Southern rock and not much vision orindividuality. Jason Michael Carroll is the best of this particularlot, and Idol veteran Bucky Covington the most annoying; somewhere in-between would be Luke Bryan and Jake Owen, who have a decent hit or twobetween them but mostly just enthusiastic handsomeness to recommendthem. Now, in the olden days (like, more than four years ago), majorlabels signed on plenty of hunks, but provided them some of the besttunes Nashville’s pro songwriters had to offer. Suddenly, the new cropof young male stars-in-training are being expected to write their ownmaterial, just like the rockers they’re half-emulating — and most of ’emjust aren’t very good at it. Also, while the older-female-demo thatcountry radio has gone after likes hearing these acts on the radio,they seem utterly uninterested in buying their records, for the mostpart. So, Music Row, can we make a deal? We, the public, will let yousign your acts directly from the pages of GQ — or Farmboy Hottie Monthly — ifyou’ll just forget the “credibility” thing and farm them nothing butgreat songs from the town’s suddenly underutilized tunesmiths.

But I did see three brand-new acts during CRS that gave me hope forthe future — all of them, perhaps not coincidentally, of the female (orfemale-dominated persuasion). One was Ashton Shepherd, whose brand newalbum we’ve already extolled in EW’s pages. She’s got the extreme vocaltwang of a Jennifer Nettles, but applied to more traditional materialthan Sugarland’s rock-leaning stuff. (Check out a sample of her currentsingle here,and if it doesn’t hook you, you’re a hopeless Yankee.) Unfortunatelyfor claustrophobes, her performance consisted of an acousticin-the-round half-hour in a hotel suite… which tends to be the formatfor some of the best unofficial CRS showcases, for anyone who wants tofeel like they’re entering a Guinness contest for how many people cansqueeze into a single room while actually drinking Guinness.

Crystal Shawanda was another winner, and one who actually played alegitimate club called the Stage — just down the block from the legendaryTootsie’s, where she used to sing covers for tips from tourists severalnights a week. Shawanda is the first Native American singer to get amajor-label country shot, but even if she didn’t have that novel factorto ride, she’s got a tearjerker of a single in the just-released “YouCan Let Go Now,” which might put a lump in the throat of anyone who’sever been a father or daughter. The rest of her material was uptempo,feisty, and a little bluesy — sort of like Gretchen without the redneckschtick.

Another act I’ve taken an immediate liking to is a band with theadmittedly unpromising name of Jypsi. They consist of three sisters anda brother who been on the road or playing clubs since most of them weretots, playing bluegrass-informed country with rock & roll spirit.For comparisons, I guess you’d have to think of them as the DixieChicks, but with Natalie Maines also being one of the sisters andplaying additional fiddle, and with a brother thrown in, too; or elsejust think of them as the Partridge Family, if the Partridge Family hadthree girls in very short skirts and did Gram Parsons and DjangoReinhardt covers. I’ve seen them on four occasions now, and every timemy reaction has been the same: Hey, how did Arista Nashville accidentally sign a bunch of hippies?Which I mean as a high compliment, because I was thinking that here isan act that could play both the CMA Festival and the nearly concurrentBonnaroo in June… even before I heard a rumor that they are booked todo just that. It’s unavoidable that they’ll be considered a jammierversion of the Dixie Chicks, but what keeps coming to mind for me withJypsi is the California country-rock of the late ‘60s. Go to iTunes anddownload their new single, “I Don’t Love You Like That” (preceding analbum that’s due in a couple of months), and tell me if you don’t hearechoes of Linda Ronstadt in her early Stone Ponys days, singing thelikes of “Different Drum.” Here’s to the Lower Broad/Laurel Canyonconnection.

A lot of the talk at CRS was about older acts,meanwhile — specifically, rockers looking to cross over into the countrymarket. Industry wag Charlie Monk’s annual stand-up routine at the NewFaces dinner had some good one-liners: “I thought No Country for Old Menwas about the Eagles… They’ve already settled on the lineup for the2009 New Faces show, and it’s Bon Jovi, the Eagles, Huey Lewis [whocurrently has a duet with Garth], Eddie Money [who was in townpromoting his first country record], and Jewel [who was ubiquitous atCRS, promoting her first country single].”

At a “no holds barred” panel Friday with some of the biggest namesin the business, there were some arguments over the merits of having somany of the “new” faces in country being already familiar from eitherTV (like Julianne Hough and the Idol alums) or exposure inanother genre (Jessica Simpson, et al.). Big & Rich’s John Richtook exception to the trend. “Country music is an art form!” Rich said,to considerable applause. “It’s not something you can do because you’refamous for doing something else. A lot of people are pursuing itbecause they can’t find another place. Are you serious about this, orare you going for the quick buck?” Big Machine label head ScottBorchetta got a dig in, telling Rich, “You’re being a little ironic,with your TV show” — referring to CMT’s high-rated, Rich-hosted Gone Country,which had Bobby Brown, Sisqo, and eventual winner Julio Iglesias Jr.,among others, competing for the chance to be a country crossover act.Responded Rich: “Wouldn’t you like to see Dee Snider come through yourboardroom? Of course you would.” To be continued, surely, next year.