To become finalists, local auditioners had to impress an American Idol-style triad of judges, including Don Harman, more than qualified to scout country talent as WDAF Channel 4's morning meteorologist; Clear Channel Publicity Director Chamie McCurry, who hyped Brooks & Dunn and Tim McGraw this year; and me, a Faith Hill-video-loving Pitch music writer. Our mission during open auditions at the Beaumont Club on November 22 was to cut the 200-plus field of twangy basic-cable fame seekers down to 30 semifinalists.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should admit that I don't pay much attention to new-school country; I prefer classics along the lines of Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, traditionalists such as Rex Hobart and Americana-inspired revisionists like Wilco and the Old 97s. I am, however, something of an American Idol expert, and I had hoped to become the local Simon Cowell. But it quickly became evident that Harman, who has a natural advantage when it comes to grumpiness, thanks to getting up crazy early on a daily basis, would fill that role. (My surliest remark was a misquote -- one poor guy heard "awful," when I'd actually said he sounded "off to me.") McCurry sat between us, serving as an exponentially more lucid Paula Abdul.
With the three judges sequestered in the Beaumont's basement green room, all of the potential contestants first auditioned upstairs for two preliminary panels. Those who advanced stepped into our makeshift lair and performed a cappella for thirty seconds. We offered some criticism, then thrust our thumbs triumphantly toward the heavens or sheepishly toward the floor. An intermediate had the thankless job of relaying our decision to those whose hopes, dreams and reason for living might then be dashed.
Word was, one guy cut in the initial round sang Jessica Andrews' "Who I Am," which includes the line I am Rosemary's granddaughter. Given that we were down there for five-and-a-half hours, he may have been the only person turned away upstairs. Make no mistake, we heard some truly bad things, most of them off-key singers who attempted to explain away their performances as the results of nagging colds. Without a doctor's note, though, we couldn't let them into the semifinals. As the hours passed and the club got smokier, performers started citing the lung-clogging conditions. Now, that I could buy. Still didn't pass 'em.
We heard the Dixie Chicks' "Goodbye Earl" in aria form. We heard the Man in Black's "Ring of Fire" sung by a grizzled Sam Elliott look-alike. We heard Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and LeAnn Rimes' "Blue" entirely too many times, because many of the female vocalists, it seemed, would rather sing a complicated song badly than a simple song well. Despite a list of more than 45 approved songs, we kept hearing the same numbers. Going in, I didn't know Martina McBride's "Broken Wing," but I can sing it now, and if the thought of doing so appealed to me more than the prospect of contracting scurvy, I'd do it. Still, there were some bright spots. Anthony Wilkerson's take on "Man of Constant Sorrow" played up the bluegrass standard's gangsta-rap flavor, and Kevin Klein did a good-times version of Waylon Jennings' Dukes of Hazzard theme song.
At the semifinals, spread over the nights of December 4 and 5, Troy Wahlborg from local country band Steel Horse stepped in with his encyclopedic knowledge of country music, replacing McCurry and dropping me to Abdul status. Harman revealed he'd gotten some nasty e-mails from people who didn't appreciate his opinions. I couldn't help but feel kind of jealous.
Contestants now got to sing an entire cover from the approved list, a cappella, accompanied by one unamplified instrument, or backed by a CD. They were also prompted to sing an original or a commercially unreleased song they had permission to perform. Three of these numbers ended up having something to do with angels, perhaps signaling the next big country trend.
With only 36 preselected performers in this round, the quality level improved from often startlingly terrible to, at worst, boring -- with a few exceptions. One guy forgot the words, one girl was a much better singer than her accompanist was a guitar player, and one fellow sustained eye contact with me to disturbingly creepy effect.
Among the original songs I dug were:
· Tina Lawrence's "Back This Way," which she prefaced by saying it had been inspired partially by ABC's The Bachelor.
· Brandy Morin's "Get Your Engine Revving," which passed off thinly veiled sexual innuendo as an ode to NASCAR.
· Amy Millstead's country-by-way-of-acoustic-disco ditty "The Shape I'm In."
After our decisions were announced, bouncers offered to walk us to our cars in case the rejects became disgruntled. Sadly, nobody so much as looked at me funny, so I rode the mechanical bull, thus increasing my credibility.
McCurry returned the next night to watch the final ten auditions. With the exception of Dalton Windsor, who made a brave but ill-fated attempt to switch his cover selection, the contestants didn't alter much from the previous night's programs. Lauren Price brought some kids who shouted her name at every possible moment, which was either cute or annoying -- probably both. Amy Chartier proved herself solid, and Doc Bates has not only the authenticity but also the name to go far. Noe Palma rocked admirably, even sounding a little like Dave Matthews. Unfortunately, this was Nashville Star, not Frat Rock Star.
Once again sequestered in the green room after the performances, we judges came to consensus. Ultimately we decided on Tammy Wilkerson, who has a rich, expressive voice and an emotional depth that the others lacked. Reached a week later, Wilkerson already sounded like a Star. "There was just so much talent there," she said with more genuine sentiment than anyone who's ever halfheartedly stated it's an honor just to be nominated. "I just got into it expecting to have a good time."
So now, my involvement with Nashville Star ends, as USA brings in its own judges and Wilkerson and the winners from other cities converge for the regionals at the Beaumont on Monday, January 6. Not that the following line of action is endorsed, but if our own Wilkerson would like to show up at the club early and start buying the other contestants drinks, getting them good and sloshed before they go on, so be it. Nashville Star is, after all, reality television. And if there's one thing to be learned from Survivor and Temptation Island, it's that in the world of reality television, anything goes.