Twinkle, twinkle Nashville stars
By CRAIG HAVIGHURST
Staff Writer The Tennessean
As the climax approaches, four finalists culled from a nationwide talent search hope they've given Music Row something new to behold
Live — from Nashville — it's Saturday Night.
But it's not the Grand Ole Opry; that's going on next door. This is Nashville Star, from Opryland's BellSouth Acuff Theater, USA Network's live on-air talent search as it gears up for its April 19 episode. The theater is rumbling with energy, swinging with camera booms and swathed in a gauzy stage mist of unknown origin.
And it's full of signs, from glitter-and-glue to professional placards that make the place look like a national political convention. Some guy named Buddy Jewell seems to be running for office.
But partisanship is part of the game. Scores of Kentuckians have driven from the tiny town of Arlington and environs to cheer on Brandi Gibson, a 21-year-old 911 dispatch operator who sings a lot like Wynonna. A charter bus has plied 15 hours worth of interstate from Austin, Texas, with 55 friends and family members of John Arthur Martinez, an earnest and endearing Latino who sends love songs out to his wife. Out in the Opry Mills parking lot, Steve Griffith plays host — from his gargantuan Winnebago camper — to Jewell's fan club, because Jewell, a seasoned Music Row demo singer, is his friend and neighbor in Antioch.
This is all-American stuff, perfect fodder for spring television, when baseball is getting its winter kinks worked out and the billion or so ''reality'' shows include three cable networks airing 24-hour coverage of our country at war. Billed — in show-business shorthand — as American Idol meets The Real World, Nashville Star really is an old-fashioned talent show updated for television.
Layers of judging winnowed 8,000 hopefuls down to 12 finalists for an eight-week live audition and music business summer camp in Nashville.
For however many weeks they survive the competition, the 12 become pampered artists and media servants — treated with respect but run through the paces, from interviews to makeovers. They live in a fabulous house just off Music Row (enduring far less candid in-house video than many expected) and perform with a professional band weekly on national TV. They've gotten to know each other and like each other, and many openly weep when fellow contestants are, in reality parlance, voted off the island.
A challenge to country
By the time you read this, the winner already will have been determined by audience vote, though he or she won't be revealed until Saturday night. As of this writing, punky and magnetic Brandon Silveira was most recently banished, with Buddy, Brandi, Miranda and John remaining. One of them was sent home last night, and at 9 p.m. Saturday the remaining three will perform on Nashville Star for the last time, knowing their fate's already been sealed for a week.
The winner (and perhaps others) will be granted a standard new-artist deal on Sony Music Nashville, the country label that's home to the Dixie Chicks, Montgomery Gentry, Travis Tritt and others. With a significant head start in national name recognition, Sony will try to market the new ''Nashville Star'' in the same manner RCA marketed Kelly Clarkson, the first American Idol winner. Except that where Clarkson is being hyped to top-40 and adult-contemporary radio, Sony's new artist (or artists) will be looking for a shot at country radio and the country music infrastructure.
''Our show is not as much of a phenomenon as American Idol,'' concedes Nashville Star judge and Sony talent scout Tracy Gershon. ''But it certainly has an amazing buzz and enough viewers that can make a difference. If half the viewers even think about buying an album or calling their radio station, we're on our way.''
It's with that in mind that Nashville Star has become a window on today's Music Row, a place teeming with challenges. Album sales are soft. Artist development is much slower and more expensive than it used to be. And marketing and radio-promotion costs are out of control. It is widely believed that it costs a million dollars just to give a new artist a shot at a radio-based career, hence Sony's interest in an alternative method of launching a career.
Many observers think a core obstacle for rising artists is country radio, which has notoriously narrow expectations about how artists sound and look. This will undoubtedly affect whoever wins. Should it be Martinez, he'd be facing a format where a non-white hasn't had a big hit since Rick Trevino and Neal McCoy in 1997. Jewell, at 41, would be atypically old to launch a career. Brandi would be especially buxom for a Kenny Chesney/Faith Hill format.
And Miranda, well . . . she's a media packager's dream, except she's not interested in radio's dominant pop sound. She writes story songs and sings them in a voice that evokes roots-country queen Emmylou Harris or twangy newcomer Elizabeth Cook. That's just not what you hear on WKDF, Live 95 or WSIX.
Nashville Star is being produced for USA by several cable and live TV heavy hitters, including Jon Small, who guided Garth Brooks' Central Park HBO special, and George Verschoor, producer/director of MTVs breakthrough reality show The Real World. Aware they'd be seen as riding the American Idol coattails, the producers aimed to distinguish Star in several ways. First, artists would have to sing their own songs. And instead of prerecorded backing tracks, the aspiring singers would perform live with a six-piece band.
Talent contests have a venerable tradition in country music. Many Hall of Famers got early stage practice or came to wider notice through local competitions. As a television genre, Verschoor says, talent shows are a natural. ''There's always an appetite for it. Because it's real people competing. It's dreams coming true. It has the wish fulfillment from audiences. They can say, 'That could be me up there.' ''
That's what the 8,000 people who lined up for the first round of auditions must have thought. The show's premiere episode, besides introducing the 12 finalists, offered clips from 50 local open auditions and the regional finals throughout the country. It was an entertaining tableaux of earnest strivers, a few good singers, some goof-offs and some hopelessly delusional wannabes.
In one final, a chunky, plastic-faced Garth-alike paid the judges a smarmy, winking compliment (''you're looking mighty good tonight'') and launched into When You Say Nothing at All with a voice so bad it could start a war. Judge Gershon told him that kissing up is an important part of show business, ''but so is vocal ability.'' You could see the air flow from his inflated ego, and is there better television than that?
Keeping it country
Ah, the judges. Thanks to Simon, the blunt Brit on American Idol who has become a celebrity in his own right, judging is not a bit part in the realm of TV talent shows. Judges are part of the drama. On Nashville Star, the judges had an incalculable effect on the show less for their zingers and critiques than for their strong opinions about country music.
Charlie Robison is a burly, brazen singer-songwriter who built a solid career on the Texas outlaw border of country, most recently on Sony's Lucky Dog/Columbia Records. Gershon is an avowed traditionalist. ''I want to bring country back to country music,'' she approvingly told Miranda after one of her performances.
The third judge, Robert K. Oermann, is best known as the dean of country music critics in Nashville. He used to write about music for The Tennessean. Now he's an author, consultant and a senior faculty member at Nashville U, so to speak. Gershon fought to get him on the team.
''I turned them down twice,'' Oermann says. ''I thought it was going to be cheesy, and it didn't turn out to be that way at all. I think Charlie and Tracy and I from the get-go just tried to make it bullet-proof, so everybody who came here to Nashville was a worthy writer/artist, and they all are.''
Both he and Robison say that as a group, they weren't interested in pop music masquerading as country.
''Anybody who was just trying to be another Faith Hill or Garth, they were just out of there,'' Robison says.
''We'd say, 'You're great, but you're not country,' '' Oermann says.
As a result, the finalists represented a wide range of traditional country styles, including honky-tonk, Bakersfield, western swing, bluegrass and folk. They also brought hopes, naive or not, for opening country music to new sounds.
Jamey Garner, a handsome, harmonica-blowing artist who was sent home in week five, says he'd spent years in New York trying to persuade his friends that country music was cool, if only they'd look beyond top-40-oriented radio.
''I think country music has done itself a disservice in eliminating (traditional styles) from the playlist. If they were to throw that into the mix, I think country music would start thriving again,'' he says.
Jewell compared country's bias against older artists to the prejudices that had to be overcome when Charley Pride, country music's most legendary African-American, was introduced to audiences in the segregated '60s.
''It wouldn't have mattered if Charley was purple and weighed 400 pounds,'' Jewell says. ''My grandparents fell in love with the music. I think in that essence, the industry's changed a bunch. After all, aren't we selling sound recordings?''
No more cookie cutter
The show's not a big hit, but it's not doing badly for cable TV on Saturday nights. Nashville Star reached as few as 1.6 million viewers and as many as 2.7 million during its first six weeks, according to Nielsen Media Research. Verschoor calls the show ''a huge success'' based on feedback from USA and Sony. But it will be a while before they add up the numbers and decide if there will be a sequel.
While we wait, we'll be watching to see if the winner gets burned out by a flood of media and the rush to get an album to the market. We'll see whether the runners-up earn record deals. And we'll see if judge Oermann was right when he predicted in the first episode that a major career will come out of this program.
If nothing else, Nashville Star has proven that not every good country artist was already in Nashville and that not every flavor of country is being reflected in the mainstream. It's also been a healthy reminder that it really is hard to sing country music well and that many people would give anything to do so.
At least the contestants themselves feel like they're making a difference.
''I think Nashville needs us as much as we need them,'' Miranda says.
''That's (true) for everybody in the house,'' Brandi adds. ''The five of us left are totally different. And that's what Nashville needs.''
They don't mean these five necessarily. They mean diversity and talent that's bolstered with ambition and a strong sense of self.
''There's no more room left for cookie cutter,'' Miranda says. ''It's over.''
For a show produced by the former director of MTV's The Real World, Nashville Star didn't show much in-house melodrama. But it did produce some striking characters:
Miranda Lambert, the picture of the Texas cheerleader blonde, is trying to persuade anyone who will listen that she isn't a pop-country singer but a true-to-her-roots Texas songwriter who loves Jerry Jeff Walker, Emmylou Harris and Merle Haggard. It's occurred to her that winning Nashville Star might not be the best thing for an artist with a pretty face and strong convictions about what she wants to record and how it should sound. ''We may not get to have as much creative freedom as we want,'' she said. ''If we were to get second or third and get another deal, that would give us enough time to think about it.'' At 19, she has plenty of time either way.
John Arthur Martinez is like a Latino Eddy Arnold — a throwback, standup guy who aspires in song to build his wife ''a house made of stone'' (instead of their double-wide) and who assured host Nancy O'Dell in an on-stage chat that yes, he is competitive, but ''in a Godly way.'' He's an active independent artist with several albums and a record label and a song he co-wrote was made into a Grammy-winning recording by Flaco Jimenez and Raul Malo. Martinez wants to bring country music to Latino audiences, and that's something Nashville's record labels would like to do as well, if they could figure out how.
Buddy Jewell certainly captivated a lot of people with his performance on the Nashville Star compilation album, released about the time the show premiered. His version of Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye was truly arresting, as is his story. The Osceola, Ark., native is raising three children as a demo singer in Nashville. He has what the judges seem to regard as the best pure voice in the competition. He's come close to record deals. Harlan Howard, the Zeus of country songwriters, personally told him once to hang in there. Therefore, he will hang in there.
Brandi Gibson, from a tiny Kentucky town, has struggled with her emotions on the air more than any other contestant. The judges have told her she's too cocky and that she's not confident enough. They've told her she's pitchy and that she's a great singer. ''It's a head game'' is what she's learning about show business, she says. ''I'm trying daily (to master my emotions). I'm just setting my mind. I prepare myself to know that it might be me, or if it's not me, I don't need to cry. If you focus on everybody else, you can't focus on yourself.''
Brandon Silveira, ''the teddy bear with the spiky hair'' who dropped out at No. 5, was a shock of adrenaline and a quirkily good singer and writer to boot. He was the quickest wit and the most resilient. When judge Robert K. Oermann literally hollered at him ''Brandon, you can't sing!'' in Episode 5, Silveira, in one of Star's true jaw-droppers, budged not an inch and said, ''Like my dad told me, opinions are like . . . . Everybody's got one.'' When he got voted off, he flashed double rock-on hand signs and smiled a 50-kilowatt smile. If any of the others had had his charisma, it would have been a walk-away.
The final episode of Nashville Star will air at 9 p.m. Saturday on the USA Network.
— Craig Havighurst, Staff Writer