Nashville Star

We live in a cynical little world where reality television stars are chewed up, spit out, and thrown up on by Tara Reid literally within fifteen minutes. So it was with some smart-assed how-crazy-will-this-be attitude that I approached the Nashville Star auditions at the Wildhorse Saloon last weekend.

With a line of 1400 that wrapped around the block and the earliest hopeful having arrived at 11 p.m. the evening before, my expectations for some Taradise-style entertainment were high. After speaking to several completely normal people in line, I walked into the Wildhorse a bit disoriented. I mean, I had specifically chosen people with cowboy hats and hadn’t gotten so much as a “yee haw.”

Luckily, I was rewarded with perpetual motion inside. Nashville Star staff brought hopeful contestants inside in groups of ten where they were quickly registered and sent to another line upstairs. On the main stage, a seemingly endless parade of Ambers, Heathers and Brandies crossed to a microphone where they had 30 seconds to belt out an approved song before a quick “Thank You” told the next Heather, Amber or Brandie to step forward.

With the bright lights, the booming P.A., the cameras, and the table of producers, the scene had all the accoutrements of a reality television program. But there was something too hygienic about it. Questions ran through my mind: Where were all the crazy people? Would this procession of brunettes in blue jeans ever end? And how many phone numbers could I get if I started telling them I was a producer?

Well, if you’re going report on hot dogs, you’ve got to take a peek inside the sausage factory, so I headed upstairs and got my answers. The line of hopefuls were led like lambs to the slaughter upstairs for a pre-audition. In groups of ten, they entered a room with ten tables and a judge at each. A moderator yelled “Begin” and each had to start singing immediately because thirty seconds later, he yelled “Time!” and nearly pushed them out the back door.

The chaos was hilarious. Ten people singing in one room all at once. Some brought guitars which added to the cacophony, some forgot how their songs started, and most didn’t make it. Out of each group usually less than three were led to the stage. For the rest, that was the end of the road. That was about as brutal a filter for big talent as you could imagine.

Downstairs, as the performers left the stage, they were breathless. Typical was the response I received from a stunned Jennine Sandford, “I think it went okay. I mean, thirty seconds isn’t very much time.”

After every 100 or so contestants, the producers would stop the procession and announce the call-backs. Out of those hundred, two or three would hear their names. In a mere five hours, they’d seen the whole lot and picked 42 for Saturday’s call-backs.

If Friday’s hopefuls felt slighted, they should take heart that though Nashville Star may have missed some talent during the cattle call, they certainly didn’t advance anyone without it. Saturday is pro through and through.

It’s also sincere and downright grown-up. You almost wonder how something so mature made it onto TV these days. Honestly, there’s a contestant named “Mike Hunt” and no one even chuckles when they call his name over the PA. I am officially the most childish person in the room.

Andrew Carlton, who made it to the call-backs, describes the entire experience as “sensory overload.” Carlton, like many of those called-back, is a songwriter in town who works a day job to pay the bills. Dean Miller, another local, has been through the wringer in the music business and plays an original called “Music Executive”—a song that makes a joke of the whole circus.

Where nervous brunette girls were a staple of Friday, it’s the composed, employed, adult men who are omnipresent Saturday. How the producers who run the whole show narrowed down the field this well is beyond me. But it’s not entirely surprising given Nashville Star’s track record for uncovering talent. Take, for example, the scorching debut of Miranda Lambert who was the second runner-up in the show’s first season and compare her rocking, ballsy style to the frizzy-haired guy from American Idol whose career found no traction.

I leave the Wildhorse sober and refreshed—two things Tara Reid never feels—and I’m pleased that not all reality television is based on eating bugs, having rich parents or getting insulted by a tightly-pantsed Englishman.

[This piece appeared in All the Rage.]