USA Network’s search for the first "Nashville Star" began in the fall of 2002, when over 50 radio stations and country music venues across the country hosted open call auditions. More than 8,000 hopefuls came from far and wide to try out, with some participants traveling for hundreds of miles to take their shot at country music stardom. Contestants went through a three to four round elimination process (typically held over several nights), and their performances were voted on by a panel of judges chosen by the host radio station or venue.

Performing either a cappella or accompanying themselves on an acoustic guitar, those who auditioned were first required to sing part of an approved cover song (a list of more than 30 approved songs was provided online, giving contestants time to choose their song in advance and practice it). Those who advanced to the later rounds were then required to perform part of an original song (defined as piece of music written or co-written by the contestant, or by a third party who had granted the contestant the right to exploit the song).

Each open call audition yielded one local winner who was guaranteed a spot at to the regional competitions. The producers also took a second look at all of the local competitions and invited some additional people who they thought deserved a second chance to the regionals. The opportunity to audition via videotape was also offered, aimed at those who were unable to make it to a local audition (and at those who wanted to put themselves in contention just one more time). More than 850 people sent in videotaped auditions. In the end, a total of 118 hopefuls were selected to advance to the regional level of competition.

In early January 2003, the 118 lucky semi-finalists traveled to one of five regional audition sites: Los Angeles, Kansas City, Houston, Baltimore, and Nashville. Nashville Star judges Charlie Robison, Robert Oermann, and Tracy Gershon spent one night in each city, narrowing the field in each city to five contestants and then choosing a single regional winner. Once all five regional winners were in place, the judges then went back and selected another seven contestants they felt showed promise to complete the group of finalists.

Now, after starting with a field of thousands, only 12 people remain — and only one of them will be crowned the very first "Nashville Star."