The 2023 Country Radio Seminar (CRS) was held from March 13-15 and featured a slew of star-studded performances, along with business-centered panels for members of the industry.
For the final night of the three-day event, syndicated radio host Elaina Smith led the annual New Faces of Country Music show, which introduced the Class of 2023: Frank Ray, Priscilla Block, Jackson Dean, Nate Smith, and Jelly Roll. The highly-anticipated evening opened with a tribute to Charlie Monk, co-founder of CRS, and continued with a performance from each of these rising stars who have carried on the tradition that was first formed in 1970.
This year’s inductees were hand-selected by members of the country music industry and country radio after careful consideration among those who met the requirements. Becoming a New Faces act is not just another title to add to their impressive resumes, it is an honor that has gone on to play a pivotal role in the careers of country artists each year.
The first act to take the stage was former police officer, Frank Ray. He set the bar high as he kicked things off with his 2021 fan-favorite, “Country’d Look Good On You.” While delivering his breezy track, “Tequila Mockingbird,” he stepped to the edge of the stage, raised his glass to the audience and took a shot of tequila before finishing off the song. Ray also performed a cover of Redbone’s 1974 hit, “Come and Get Your Love,” and a few tracks off his latest Getcha Some EP including “Somebody Else’s Whiskey” and “Y’all Showed Up.”
Ray’s set wouldn’t have been complete without a bit of Latin flair to celebrate his Hispanic roots that have been showcased throughout his career as a country star. The bilingual recording artist was joined on stage by a couple of Latin dance partners as he unleashed his skills by switching from English to Spanish in “Streetlights.” During his concluding song, he also embedded a few notes of Luis Fonsi’s high-spirited song, “Despacito.”
Before Ray took the stage, the audience got to watch a pre-show interview with Audacy’s Rob and Holly. During their conversation, Ray shared his gratitude for country radio and being named one of this year’s new faces of country music.
“It’s something that I don’t take lightly. It’s something that’s huge for me,” he began. “I think the support from country radio is super important because it’s been such a long time since a Hispanic artist has emerged in the genre, but it’s something I wear for a badge of honor. My team and I had a very clear vision of what we wanted this to be when we started out. It’s so much bigger than Frank Ray. We’re representing an entire culture. We’re representing an entire community in Southwestern New Mexico and West Texas.”
Jackson Dean was the next artist to show why he deserved to claim a spot in the coveted group of new faces. Before Dean’s set, he teased a new project while speaking with Rob and Holly. With a knowing smile on his face, Dean revealed that his recent performance with Carly Pearce at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium had been multi-tracked. He kept a pretty tight lip on what will come from those recordings, but on Friday (March 17), Dean revealed plans to release an eight-song Live From the Ryman album.
He opened his set with a stunning performance of his dreamy ballad, “Wings,” before showcasing an unreleased track titled, “Heavens to Betsy.” Silence washed over the audience members as they carefully tuned into Dean and his powerful statement that introduced his next song. “In a world full of fear, be fearless,” he said ahead of the effortless transition into his current single, “Fearless.”
If he didn’t have it already, Dean surely earned a room full of support after this night. “Y’all have changed my life and the life of my band up here,” he said, thanking the radio programmers sitting at the rows of tables in front of him. “Thank you for changing my life and supporting me along the way…and thanks for making this one go No. 1,” he added before breaking out into his hard-hitting tune, “Don’t Come Lookin’.”
Just a few years ago, Priscilla Block was shutting down the bars on Broadway and trying everything to make a name for herself. Now, she’s selling out venues, earning support from her constantly growing fanbase, and making her way up the charts. The confident female songstress followed Dean’s performance with a delivery of “My Bar,” her daring fan-favorite that reached No. 26 on the Country Airplay chart. Her set also featured the boot-stomping party anthem, “Off The Deep End” and the heartbreak track, “Me Pt. 2,” which was inspired by the sinking feeling of seeing her ex with someone new. With her rhinestone blue guitar in hand, Block’s honest persona came to light as she found her way through some minor technical difficulties.
“If this thing wasn’t a little bit of a sh-t show, y’all would probably be disappointed,” she said, earning a laugh from the audience.
Her final song of the night showcased the melody that started it all for her. After going viral with “Just About Over You,” Block landed a major record deal and earned the top spot on the iTunes Country Chart in June of 2020. In conclusion, she thanked CEO/chairman of UMG Nashville, Mike Dungan for his support throughout her budding career so far. “I’ve always believed in myself, I was just waiting for other people to start believing in me,” she said before shotgunning a beer and making her way off stage.
Before each performance, the New Faces of Country Music are introduced by a promotional video. Generally, these videos are used to showcase the artist’s impressive statistics and recent accomplishments. However, for some, it’s a chance to lighten up the mood and show off their charismatic personality through a funny skit of some kind. This year, Nate Smith took on this challenge. The video opened with him walking into Nashville’s iconic Winner’s bar, grabbing photos with fans, and saying hello to friends along the way. However, he was suddenly reminded that he was supposed to be performing at CRS at any minute. After learning this news, he quickly made his way out of the bar and began running throughout Nashville, making a few hilarious stops along the way. To add to the dramatic effect of the skit, the video was backed by Guns N’ Roses’ “Welcome to the Jungle,” Skrillex’s “Bangarang” and AC/DC’s “Back in Black.”
Eventually, the Arista/Sony Nashville artist found himself in the Omni Hotel, where the three-day event was being held. Smith put his leather jacket back on and opened the doors as the screens went black. A few moments later, he appeared on stage to sing the up-tempo track, “Name Stores After,” which is slated to appear on his upcoming debut album, out April 28. Smith continued his set with the painfully honest ballad, “Wreckage,” earning him a round of applause and cheers of excitement from the crowd. While taking a moment to address those in front of him, Smith took a breath to calm his nerves and began to speak from his heart.
“Thank you so much, country radio for giving me a chance to do this for a job. It’s the greatest thing in the world and I get to be a messenger of music that can touch hearts and that’s the coolest thing ever,” he declared. “It’s not about me, it’s about the music, it’s about the songs and I’m just lucky enough to stand here and sing them for you guys tonight. So thank you for all your support on everything, I love you guys.”
After his heartfelt words, Smith kept the night moving with his powerful release, “Better Boy,” as well as his No. 1 viral hit, “Whiskey on You.”
The evening ended with a bang as the final member of New Faces was introduced through a chilling video that proved how much things can change with the power of determination. As Jelly Roll appeared on the screens throughout the room, he explained that he was standing in the exact building where he previously served time. After sharing a bit about his time there, he depicted the moment he got to walk back into his old cell and imagine telling his 24-year-old self that he is now “a platinum-recording artist with a No. 1 on country radio and a new single that just came out.”
After this chilling introduction, Jelly Roll shifted the energy as he stormed the stage and launched his set with “Halfway to Hell,” which was followed by his current single, “Need a Favor.” Before continuing to his next song, Jelly Roll got emotional as he acknowledged how much it means to him to get to perform in front of the people who have had such an impact on his life. He also shared a bit about his journey that led him to achieve so many of his dreams that he never thought were possible.
“I believe that country music and me share one thing – it’s real music for real people with real problems,” he shared before adding, “the song we’re fixin’ to play, this is the song that changed everything for me, and y’all did this. This song is called ‘Son of a Sinner.’”
Jelly Roll stole the show with this chart-topping hit, as he took a stance with his soaring vocals. In the midst of his performance, the country star stepped off stage, approached the group of industry members and kissed Tracy Lawrence. This was his way of saying “congratulations” to Lawrence on receiving the Tom Rivers Humanitarian Award just moments before.
After making his way back to the stage, he unveiled a few surprises. First, Jelly Roll stood close to the mic as he announced that his debut country album, Whitsett Chapel, will drop on June 2.
“We wanted to make sure y’all heard it first right here and I want you to know how much I love this country music community, this country music family, y’all standing behind the kid, y’all getting behind the guy that nobody else in life ever got behind and I will never let y’all down, I promise you,” he said with nothing but confidence. “This album will be everything you want it to be. I promise you, I am here to stay.”
He followed up his speech by welcoming country/rocker Brantley Gilbert and rapper Struggle Jennings to the stage to help him deliver, “Behind Bars,” one of the tracks that will be featured on his upcoming project. His moments included a performance of his previously-released tune, “Save Me,” and a standing ovation from the crowded room.
By the end of the night, it was abundantly clear that Ray, Block, Dean, Smith and Jelly Roll will continue to make country music proud as they lead a new generation of artists who hold nothing but gratitude and hopefulness for the future ahead.
Country Radio Seminar will return to Nashville February 28 – March 1, 2024.