At the annual Country Radio Seminar conference in Nashville, the dozens of stars and up-and-comers showcasing their material know that the assembled radio pros may well have burned out on their existing hits. So many will bust out an unreleased tune, in hopes of providing a taste of a song that will someday go the distance, or just for novelty’s sake. This year’s confab was no exception, with artists like Chris Stapleton, Luke Combs, Vince Gill, Cam, and Brad Paisley doing fresh numbers that haven’t been heard yet outside of some tour dates, if even that.
Here are 10 of the best unreleased tracks we caught at CRS’s 2018 showcases:
Chris Stapleton, “There Ain’t No Easy Way”
He may be country’s sales phenomenon of the decade, but as if to prove that he’s hardly in it to rack up the numbers, Stapleton didn’t use his one-song appearance at Universal Music Nashville’s annual showcase to plug “Either One,” the single he has on the rise. Instead, he told the Ryman crowd, “I like to do things here you’re never going to get anywhere else… I probably haven’t played this song in 15 or 20 years.” That was an obscure song initially recorded by the duo of Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien on an album in 2000. Their version was bluegrassy, but his was slow, bluesy, and every bit as wrenching as the despondent lyric. It may not be too soon to start a petition to beg Stapleton to cut it for his next album.
Fans were surprised to see Cam’s name pop up as a co-writer and backup performer on a Sam Smith song when he released his sophomore album late last year. Performing as part of a guitar pull at an invite-only showcase of Sony Nashville artists at the CMA Theatre, Cam explained how the collaboration came about as a result of Smith becoming enamored of some unreleased material that their mutual producer/co-writer, Tyler Johnson, played for him. Smith did a fine, emotionally resonant job of recording the song that resulted, yet Cam’s live take arguably blows even Smith’s out of the water, which is saying something.
Ashley McBryde, “American Scandal”
McBryde has one of the year’s most anticipated country debuts, by far, and her separate electric and acoustic sets at CRS delivered on the hype locals have been putting out on her. As good as some of the other female freshmen of country are, you wouldn’t begin to mistake any of them for McBryde, who combines some of the unrepentant attitude that once made Gretchen Wilson a star with the lyrical sensitivity of a Brandy Clark… and while we’re at it, let’s compare her to some men, and superstars, like Eric Church and Chris Stapleton. Is she as tough as her tatted-up look might suggest? Yes and no. In introducing “American Scandal,” she talked about lacking the gene to even attempt writing love songs… yet the song’s suggestion that a love affair should feel as passionate as an illicit affair sure sounds like a desire for affection as well as lust.
Vince Gill, “Forever Changed”
Gill provided the most talked-about song at Country Radio Seminar with a tender, fierce ballad about sexual molestation that was written several years ago but is finding its moment now. Check out our story about “Forever Changed” here.
Kassi Ashton, “The Straw”
Ashton is an enormously self-possessed newcomer from California, Missouri (yes, that’s a real town). The oxymoron that is implicit in her hometown’s name may be further exemplified by the fact she is jointly signed to UMG Nashville and a pop label, Interscope. Her true-life breakup ballad “The Straw” (as in, the thing about her ex that broke a back) got a standing ovation from a Ryman audience made up almost entirely of first-time witnesses to her way with beltingly sung words. Is it pop? Is it country? Maybe just a knockout by any other name.
Trent Harmon, “You Got ‘Em All”
You might remember Harmon as the 15th season winner of “American Idol”… or maybe you don’t, since most of the titular country had tuned out by the time the show’s original iteration ground to a half. No matter. No prior knowledge was necessary to know that Harmon hit a homer at Big Machine’s Wednesday luncheon showcase with a song that, like Ashton’s, was about an IRL heartache. Harmon told the crowd that it was prompted by his girlfriend of seven years calling him up to announce she was moving out of the country in two weeks. That wasn’t his only setback since winning “Idol”; laborious label extractions got a piece of his heart, too. But maybe he waited till the right moment to win ours. (One caveat: this only makes the “unreleased” list on a technicality, because when he performed it Wednesday, it was a few hours shy of its digital release Thursday morning. We can’t resist including the single if it is out.)
Luke Combs, “Beer Never Broke My Heart”
As an artist who’s ready to start the party, Combs may come off as slightly more bro-y than Chris Stapleton, but he represents another triumph of the normal guy/completely abnormal paradigm in country. He became a mid-level hall headliner right in the immediate tailwind of his debut album’s release, and although he’ll be working that record for some time to come, he’s been letting crowds know that he’s already working on songs for album two, like this one that he started playing for regular-joe crowds in January. The industry audience at Sony’s CMA Theatre showcase ate it up, or drank it up, too.
Brad Paisley, “You’ll Always Be My First”
Fact one: Paisley really loves his old-school novelty songs… God bless him. Fact two: He’s really tired of the ones that became hits, like “Alcohol.” So he’s been trying this one out on the road and played it on two different occasions at CRS, too, opening with the explanation that coastal types think country fans are inbred hicks, and it’s his purpose in life to dispel that… which kind of gives you an idea where this is headed. Chances are he’ll never put this on a record… although, what are we saying? He did once put a ballad about gender toilet-seat etiquette on a B-side. May one of country’s biggest class acts always endeavor to occasionally bring shame upon the genre with these one-offs.
Travis Denning, “David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs”
Denning is such a fresh signing to UMG Nashville that he was perhaps the one act to take the stage at the label group’s Ryman showcase with no buzz — but he definitely left with some. In his introductory remarks, the Georgia native established that this is the true story, right down to the title details, about how as a teen he found an abandoned adult driver’s license and milked that faux ID for all it was worth for a few years. Once you’ve heard the song, the title trips off the tongue better than you’d think, thanks to Dennings’ precocious storytelling skill. Supposedly, the real David Ashley Parker from Powder Springs has been located and awaits his photo op. And with any luck, Denning will make his name with this tale of a fake name.
Maddie & Tae, “One Heart to Another”
The young duo that brought a feminist slant to country just when the bro-therhood needed it most got lost in the Big Machine realignment shuffle, but UMG Nashville came to the rescue in time to include them in their CRS showcase. As they instruct us in this new song, they don’t want to be the babes in the pickup truck, a la “Girl in a Country Song,” but neither do they want to be kicked to the curb by a guy who hits the scene like a virus. There’s too much sweetness here to be lost in a breakup or a label re-org.