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ERNEST showcases future stardom at Nashville’s Ryman, Keith Urban, HARDY guests

Nashville area native ERNEST performed for the first of two headlining nights at the Ryman. Guest appearances were made by Keith Urban and HARDY.

by Marcus K. Dowling | The Tennessean

Mark Zaleski / The Tennessean

Nashville area native singer-songwriter ERNEST performed Tuesday evening on the first of two headlining nights at Lower Broadway’s Ryman Auditorium.

Given that he named his 2-year-old son after the venue, it was a career-highlight moment for the “Flower Shops” vocalist.

The concert showed both the upside and perils of having a catalog of music that has primarily served as the metaphorical garnish — but not the highlighted steak — of country music’s streaming success-defined pop-crossover era.

ERNEST is responsible for over one billion streams on Spotify alone. Five years ago, he was a pop-aimed rapper beginning his evolution into a suave, country-crooning balladeer.

How was ERNEST’s stardom born and how has it sustained?

2023 may be the halfway point of what could be the artist and songwriter born Ernest K. Smith’s decade-long evolution into a country superstar. It’s arrived in a mega-massive manner.

As a performer, he’s played a barnstorming set of nearly 100 dates in arenas and stadiums worldwide as an opener for Morgan Wallen and HARDY, plus Parker McCollum and numerous others.

As a songwriter, he’s earned that touring schedule having worked alongside Wallen and HARDY (among many) and helping to shepherd country into an new era. It is an era in which its most commercially successful sounds blend trap-style R&B, Tennessee whiskey-soaked and tear-stained red-dirt Texas stylings.

His vocal chops have earned him a hit with his Wallen duet “Flower Shops,” as well as sustained critical acclaim and consistent streaming playlisting with his two-year-old double album that shares a name with his hit single.

He received a plaque highlighting his Spotify success before his headlining set. He spoke at length about how his work as a songwriter for other artists benefitted him, discovering what could allow him to stand out uniquely.

If anything, his 27-song headlining set (opened by his singing and songwriting compatriots Cody Lohden and Jake Worthington) showcased the breadth of gifts he’s earned from his work.

Yes, ERNEST played 27 songs — many were enormous hits

When ERNEST is alone, onstage with his guitar, the confidence of his background as an R&B devotee making country music appears.

His solo takes on his duet with Wallen on 2023 “On Thing At A Time” album favorite “Long Live Cowgirls,” Diplo-released Wallen and Julia Michaels collaboration “Heartless,” Jelly Roll single “Son of A Sinner, Wallen’s “Wasted on You” and duet with co-writer HARDY on Wallen’s “More Than My Hometown” were particularly strong.

In the past three years, those songs have achieved over 20 million sales-equivalent units. If you walk around the corner and down Lower Broadway, they’re also inspiring confidence in honky-tonk bands who would mortgage their careers to have one-one hundredth of ERNEST’s current success.

However, a more significant facet of ERNEST’s confidence appears when he talks about his deep adoration for the country’s traditions.

Ernest performs with Keith Urban at the Ryman Auditorium during his This Fire Tour Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

Mark Zaleski / The Tennessean

Covering Merle Haggard’s four-decade-old “That’s The Way Love Goes” makes ERNEST and his backing band, The Boys, appear to be faithfully striving to achieve the standard set by Haggard and The Strangers. Merle had an octet backing him. ERNEST is still gaining comfort as a composer, arranger and songwriter. Thus, The Boys are a trio.

For ERNEST and The Boys, two moments are particularly peerless.

Yes, show-closer “Flower Shops” is as much a show-stopper that highlights Chandler Walters as a growing star on steel guitar as it honors George Jones’ creative legacy. However, Keith Urban’s guest appearance as a backing guitarist for ERNEST and his band’s take on John Mayer’s soulful 2000s-era favorite “Slow Dancing In A Burning Room” doubled down on what was already one of the year’s most unexpected and joyously inspired performances.

How can artists like ERNEST connect with country’s next level of crossover growth?

Country music’s current crossover moment is as culturally and socially ubiquitous as streaming’s grip over the music industry. Thus, the work required to get people in a live crowd not to chit-chat in pews as if they’re at the gym or idly sitting in rush hour traffic is profound.

Ernest performs at the Ryman Auditorium during his This Fire Tour Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.Mark Zaleski / The Tennessean

Artists able to turn that idle chatter into sing-a-long moments are often the ones who evolve into superstars.

Luke Combs, for instance, can captivate an audience with his live performance of “Fast Car,” even though many in his audience may have already heard the song twice while sitting in traffic.

At moments, ERNEST’s set felt like listening to Jimmy Buffett’s songs at a Margaritaville bar and grille as compared to someone attempting the equivalent of hearing Jimmy Buffet play “Margaritaville” at The Ryman.

Ernest performs at the Ryman Auditorium during his This Fire Tour Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn.

Mark Zaleski / The Tennessean

It’s not a slight to ERNEST’s art. He’s crafted music that has helped redefine the genre. However, the culture his art now defines is unprecedented and requires dynamic growth to connect with its exciting potential.

ERNEST at The Ryman — Night One setlist — 11/28/23

  • This Fire
  • Wild Wild West
  • Did It With You
  • Tennessee Queen
  • Son of a Sinner
  • Drunk With My Friends
  • Slow Dancing In A Burning Room (w/ Keith Urban)
  • Sugar
  • I Think I Love You
  • Nothin To Lose
  • Sucker For Small Towns
  • Wasted On You
  • Somebody’s Problem
  • Locals Only
  • More Than My Hometown (w/ HARDY)
  • That’s The Way Love Goes (Merle Haggard cover)
  • Comfortable When I’m Crazy
  • Kiss of Death
  • Classic
  • Feet Wanna Run
  • Bottle’s Bout Dead
  • Some Other Bar
  • Heartless
  • Miss That Girl
  • Long Live Cowgirls
  • Flower Shops