OK, here's the harried handicapper's rundown of the entrants in Wednesday night's singing and picking derby in the University at Buffalo's Center for the Arts.
The first thing to look for in betting on which of these young and/or newer artists is going to hit the big time in Nashville is the track. The Fall Acoustic show sponsored by WYRK-FM was a great opportunity to hear them without the huge video screens and big-time sound processing that is common to the big-time tours where they frequently serve as opening acts.
If it's a California track, go for Jimmy Wayne. The guy had a hardscrabble youth, but he came out of with a sunny outlook and a smooth voice that brings to mind the 1970s country rock of the Eagles -- without the cynicism. Even his song about his sister and her abusive former husband -- called "Stay Gone" -- is cheerful.
He also was the loquacious one on stage, out-talking even Ashton Shepherd. The third performer -- Jamey Johnson -- was a man of few words, usually reserving them for one-liners that cut to the quick.
Shepherd, meanwhile, was the classic country artist of the three as they took turns playing their own songs. Each brought accompaniment: Shepherd a guitarist, Wayne a percussionist and Johnson a guitarist and a guy playing slide guitar on his lap.
Shepherd, just 22, said she is meeting her husband and son tomorrow as she continues her tour.
But her songs were frequently about breaking out of the constraints of everyday life -- traditional fodder for country women. On songs like "Take This Pain" -- her tale of a woman taking off her wedding ring and leaving her loser behind -- she stretched her deep twang and drawl around the phrasing to the point of almost turning some lines into yodels.
Johnson was definitely the dark horse. In fact, almost everything about him is dark, including his sense of humor. With a black Rob Zombie beard and dressed in a leather jacket, ripped jeans and a ski cap, he and the rest of his trio looked like they could either sell you gas or rob you -- before they go into the back room to continue their picking session.
In an age when it seems like every other country song turns into a personal testimony of redemption, Johnson's stripped-down, taut versions of songs like "High Cost of Living," "That Lonesome Song" and "Take It Away" seemingly took the sold-out audience's breath away after the comparatively sunny songs of Shepherd and Wayne.
It's hard to find flaws in a show like Wednesday's. Eighteen songs, two hours, $20 tickets, and you get a chance to really get a feel for the personality of the artists.
I'd play it safe and box the trifecta.
WYRK Fall Acoustic Concert
Featuring Jimmy Wayne, Ashton Shepherd and Jamey Johnson on Wednesday night in the University at Buffalo Center for the Arts.