Nashville Star: Gone Country | Flipping

Nashville Star: Gone Country

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So, to fill the summer doldrums, Nashville Star has been bumped up to the big leagues -- NBC, on Monday nights -- for its fifth season. And, did I mention that part of the prize is a shameless piece of cross-promotion? The winner sings at the Olympics, broadcast, naturally, on NBC.

Anyhow, landing on Nashville Star -- and even winning -- is a career crapshoot: Miranda Lambert's done OK, but you'd have to be a dedicated county-fair-goer to keep up with the rest. And just like American Idol, the best entertainment is often with the also-rans.

The two-hour premiere killed 30 minutes with creepy Billy Ray Cyrus celebrating America, its armed forces and the teary auditions. (Cyrus' streaky hair and plastic face freak me out. Not to mention his manic stage delivery which shifts between wooden and overly enthusiastic.)

We got our three judges seated: crooner and rodeo wife, Jewel; country caricature John Rich; and songwriter Jeffrey Steele. "Jeffrey Steele" is this close to a porn name, and it's as fake as the dude's SoCal blond locks. His surf-bum/weekend-biker/oily Richard Branson vibe is also weirding me out, as is his tendency to show support for singers by making "touchdowns" with his arms during their performances. Also, in the negative column: He's written too many Rascal Flatts songs.

On the upside, I like that the judges were universally free to criticize -- none of that Paula-only-makes-nice stuff -- and inexplicably, each had their guitar with them.

We get off to a bad singing start with a group rendition of "Life Is a Highway," which, for my money, is a pop-rock song, and doesn't get anymore country when 13 people sing it at once.

The lucky 13 were the proverbial mixed-bag: a black guy, a Latino dude, a full-figured gal, an emo guy with purple hair; some were way young, others were way old. There was less diversity in how they sounded, since contemporary country has the grim task of flattening out everything into a bland pop-rock tune with splash of steel guitar.

Way out on a limb was the trio Third Town (worst name ever!), who had great harmonies, but did a jokey version of "Elvira" that would have brought down the house 30 years ago on HeeHaw. They likely won't last the month.

Also probably in trouble: Alyson, the Reba-ish gal, who put a 1980s sequins-and-tight-fittin'-jeans spin on "Suds in the Bucket"; Tommy the sailorman; and Justin, the male model who sang "Drops of Jupiter" (he's cool modeling underwear, so maybe the Janice Dickinson show will take him in). I wouldn't bet the farm on the teen-girl duo, Laura and Sophie, or the teen-girl trio Pearl Heart. Nice vocals, sweet smiles but no sparkle or stage gifts. Come back in five years.

My early favorite is Gabe Garcia, who has a great old-school country voice (and that's how I roll). Picking a Strait classic was a no-brainer, but I like to see him wrap those resonant tones around less obvious song choices.

The mono-named Coffey should do well: He's good-looking, has a nice sound and country music loves to congratulate itself on its few black voices. (Truth is, there are decades of real-life C&W tradition and cross-over among African Americans and Hispanics, but little of it makes the golden zone seemingly reserved for the white-bread stars.)

I also like Melissa, owner of a big body and a bigger voice: She was comfortable in both. She took on Bonnie Raitt's signature tune, "People Are Talking," and triumphed.

Typically, my top three are the underdogs, at least when matched against how Nashville stardom works: two minorities and an older, overweight woman. We'll just see how out of step I am once America starts phoning in.

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