Kristen McNamara stands on the stage of Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon in a black satin cocktail dress and cowboy boots, looking more than a little embarrassed. It’s the 20-year-old blonde’s chance to shine in the preliminary finals for TV’s Nashville Star, country music’s version of the colossal hit talent show American Idol, but now she’s hit a snag. The cheap guitar she bought before the last round of auditions has no plug for an amp, so she’s forced to improvise, dragging a second microphone over to make the instrument heard. Undeterred, she plows ahead in a bid to dazzle the judges and land a spot in the Top 10 of the show’s fourth season.
Other contestants have had an easier time this Friday evening, among them Chris Young, 20, a Murfreesboro native who’s brought along a sizable fan club waving paper fans and neon pink signs bearing his name. The display inspires another potential finalist to crack, “I already don’t like that guy.” After a string of pretty 20-somethings perform, a portly fellow who calls himself Pizza Bob and who sports a white jacket with leopard-print lapels charms the audience with his comedy shtick, but the judges’ poker faces make it hard to tell if they agree.
Each year, Nashville Star assembles a group of hopefuls like these and pledges to pluck one from obscurity and transform him or her into country music’s next big thing: a superstar with talent, polish and mass appeal. But as it prepares to enter its fourth season, the show has yet to deliver on that promise. Its most obvious success story, first season winner Buddy Jewell, announced in January that he’d been dropped by Sony BMG, leaving the future of his career in doubt. But Jewell’s the lucky one. The other winners—and most of the other finalists—have barely made a dent in country’s consciousness.
“Whether or not someone becomes the hugest superstar, that’s what everyone wants, but it’s not in our control,” says executive producer H.T. Owens. “At the end of the day, our team’s mission is to try to elevate the show and make it better.”
Nashville Star is undoubtedly basking in the glow of television success. For a niche reality show to log three successful seasons and increase in popularity as it goes is rare. Last year, it scored its highest ratings ever in the coveted 18-34 demographic, making it a sought-after advertising venue. A version of Nashville Star has been sold to Dubai, where it will be dubbed Gulf Star. A Christian knock-off, Gifted, is also in the works.
Nearly three times as many hopefuls as last year auditioned for this season, a testament to the show’s growing visibility. But the hopefuls’ dreams of superstardom seem a bit naïve, given the show’s mediocre track record when it comes to star-making. Of its three winners, only Jewell has sold more than 500,000 records, and he’s also the only winner to crack the country Top 30. The majority of the contestants have returned to what they were doing before the show—playing locally and releasing albums on their own dime—albeit with the small boost of publicity the show offered.
Certainly, no one promised the runners-up fame and fortune. The winners, on the other hand, have performed below expectations in terms of both sales and airplay, and generally seemed to struggle with breaking into Music Row’s tightly knit circle. Nashville Star 2 winner Brad Cotter was dropped by Sony BMG last January, after selling only 128,000 copies of his album Patient Man. Only one of his singles, “I Meant To,” broke into the Top 40. The debut single by the third season’s winner, 18-year-old Erika Jo, reached only No. 53.
In country music, sales—and success—are driven primarily by radio, more so than in any other genre. For that reason, there tends to be a protocol in Nashville, a “right way” for artists to work the system. After being scouted and signed by a label, new artists embark on lengthy and exhausting radio tours, where they meet programmers face to face, and tell their stories, vying for airtime. Nashville Star winners do a much abbreviated version of that song-and-dance, which may not endear them to folks at radio.
“Radio thinks they launch stars—which they do,” Owens says. “It’s our job as producers of the show to make their job easier.” With that in mind, Owens says Nashville Star has taken steps to involve radio more this year so the winner can start off more established. To begin with, the show teamed up with local radio stations to spread the word about regional auditions, a move that contributed to the impressive increase in turnout.
But U.S. viewers have shorter attention spans than ever these days, and there’s no shortage of mediums competing for attention. If radio is reluctant to boost a TV-made star, it may be because TV and radio are ultimately rivals for the same audience.
“Theoretically, anything that captures the attention of a radio listener is competition,” says Ed Salamon, executive director of Country Radio Broadcasters. “On a practical basis, radio has learned that a lot of their listeners watch TV, so they consider these shows competition.”
At the same time, he says, most programmers feel that anything that provides positive publicity for the country music industry is beneficial for everyone. So there is some advantage to promoting TV-created artists.
This might explain why American Idol winners have had much more success on country radio than their counterparts from Nashville Star. Reigning Idol Carrie Underwood’s debut single, “Jesus Take the Wheel,” spent six weeks at No. 1, and her album went double platinum within months of its release. Idol fourth-place finisher Josh Gracin scored a No. 1 single with “Nothin’ to Lose,” two Top 5 hits and a gold album.
While Nashville Star enjoys modest cable-TV success, Idol in its fifth year has become something of a television legend. This year, the show crushed the Olympics in the ratings, a feat once considered impossible in TV-land. Idol is unstoppable, and for the show to have crowned a country superstar seems a stroke of incredible luck for the country music industry. It’s not surprising that radio would want to jump on that bandwagon.
But radio isn’t the only place in the country music industry where support for Nashville Star is waning. Besides dropping both Jewell and Cotter, Sony BMG also decided not to partner with the show after the second season. Universal South quickly signed on for season three, but elected not to continue after releasing Erika Jo’s album. The RCA Label Group will be the home for the winner of Nashville Star’s fourth season. It’s hardly a vote of confidence in the show’s star-making potential that record labels consider it such a hot potato.
“There’s a sense [in the industry] that a ‘talent contest’ is not the right way to be discovered,” Owens says. “That unless you’re toiling in bars and hitchhiking from town to town that somehow it’s not legitimate.”
In reality, many of the contestants on Nashville Star have paid their share of dues—Jewell was a well-known demo singer in Nashville for a decade and tried repeatedly to land a record deal. But concern about a talent show’s ability to select someone with star potential is not unfounded. Record labels have an A&R department for a reason—a staff that’s trained to spot talent, marketability, that “x factor” that makes someone compelling to watch. Television audiences aren’t necessarily the best judges of that kind of star quality, and too often these talent contests reward the most obviously showy singers, with little attention paid to more subtle things like vocal range and stage presence.
“I tend to believe that in America, your average 45-year-old housewife in Kansas really doesn’t know what she’s going to enjoy,” says Travis Howard, a finalist during the first season of Nashville Star. “Most people want comfort, safety and security, and those things are intrinsically not what great art is made of.”
Howard is good-natured about his own experience on the show, which landed him a small role in Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown and on an episode of CMT’s Unsung Stories, among other things. Having seen how unpredictable TV talent shows can be, he says he never expected to win the contest.
A show like Nashville Star offers no control over why voters are making their choices—whether these choices are based on who’s the most talented, who has the most heart-tugging story or something else altogether. Who can forget the year that American Idol voters systematically picked off a series of phenomenal black vocalists in favor of much weaker singers, inspiring a flood of questions about the state of race in the U.S. Last season, Nashville Star finalist Tamika Tyler even claimed that a cleverly edited argument had turned voters against her.
“I think audiences are always going to say, ‘He’s cute,’ or, ‘I feel sorry for him because he cried last week,’ ” Howard says. “They’re not always taking into account everything that makes a great artist.”
But even if they “vote their conscience,” audiences also tend to resist anything too far outside the norm. In country music history, though, it was those breaks from the status quo that gave us the likes of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Loretta Lynn. Though unquestionably magnetic, none of them likely would have lasted long on a TV contest.
“It’s really important in a star to have that vibe about you that says, ‘I understand what my music is about, I understand how all my forefathers have behaved,’ ” Howard says. “A star kind of carries that weight.”
Some of that brand of star power undoubtedly comes with age and experience. But as Nashville Star vies for a younger, hipper audience, its talent pool is growing much younger, too. When Jewell was crowned the first Nashville Star in May 2003, he was 41, as was his runner-up, John Arthur Martinez. But since the first season, there have been no contestants in their 40s. The show has since featured no male finalists over 35, and only a handful of women in that range.
The average age of finalists on Nashville Star has also decreased since season two, when it topped out at 31.8. Season three’s finalists averaged 26.6, and the crop of season four competitors is the youngest yet, with an average age of 25.2, and the oldest contestant the ripe old age of 33. The number of contestants in their teens and early 20s in the line-up has increased, culminating in high school senior Erika Jo’s victory a week after she attended her prom.
The reward for that change in dynamic is that the show’s median audience age decreased, which pleased advertisers. But the change may also have made for less radio-ready stars. Jewell, a devoted husband and father who often wrote tender love songs, appealed immensely to country’s core audience: middle-aged women. His first single, “Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey’s Song)” was a programmer’s dream—based on a true story about his daughter asking if she could go to heaven to help out the angels. That song and its follow-up, “Sweet Southern Comfort,” both reached No. 3.
Of course, Jewell also had the benefit of cherry-picking songs from those 10 long years of work in the business, which gave him a distinct advantage when faced with the ridiculous challenge of having just a few months to create, record, mix, package and distribute an album. In an industry where the odds are stacked against a new artist from the start, this arbitrary deadline designed to capitalize on the show’s publicity cripples a Nashville Star winner’s already minimal chance of success.
For a study in contrasts, look at Miranda Lambert. At 21, she came in third place on Nashville Star’s first season and walked away with a deal with Sony. Unlike the winners, who are pressured to rush out albums while their win is still in recent memory, Lambert was afforded the luxury of spending two years crafting her debut, Kerosene. She co-wrote 11 of 12 tracks, including several with fellow contestant Travis Howard. The result was arguably the best country album of 2005, a sophisticated, ambitious piece of country-rock that made its debut at No. 1 on the country charts and has been certified gold. Lambert is proof that winning Nashville Star is in some ways a catch-22.
“When we were on the show, [Miranda, Jamey Garner and I] used to talk about that,” Howard says. “We started to speculate—maybe winning wouldn’t be the best thing. Maybe just staying on the show as long as you could, and then you’d have more freedom.”
Even Underwood seemed to benefit from a few extra months of work. Her debut album, Some Hearts, released six months after her win, featured several run-of-the-mill tracks, but also clearly established a theme and an identity, that of a young girl stepping out on her own.
But Lambert’s success in particular demonstrates it’s not necessary to rush an album out within months to capitalize on the Nashville Star name. In light of the marginal success of the winners with this strategy, it seems worthwhile to take more time, not just to make a quality album, but to court radio and its core listeners. Part of Underwood’s success could also be attributed to the fact that she attended Fan Fair just weeks after her American Idol win, a move completely unnecessary from a publicity standpoint but one that won her much goodwill among both fans and the industry.
Second season Nashville Star finalist Lance Miller is also taking this road, currently recording an album for Warner Bros., so another success story could be forthcoming. But unless the expectations on winners are changed, country’s next big thing seems unlikely to be the winner of season four.
For one thing, most new country artists’ make-it-or-break-it time is Country Radio Seminar, held annually at the beginning of the year. Salamon says that’s a hopeful’s best shot at garnering radio support. “Let the industry get to know you,” he says.
But with the show wrapping in the spring, and an album expected out soon after, Nashville Star’s winners don’t have that opportunity until well after their debut, which seems counterintuitive to country’s long-standing protocol. As proof that the show may be learning from its mistakes, Nashville Star winner Erika Jo was on hand at this year’s CRS to try to re-engage some interest in her album and career.
But as Erika Jo doubles back for a second chance at stardom, 10 new hopefuls are waiting for the chance to take her place. Among them is Kristen McNamara, who overcame her technical difficulties to perform an original song in the preliminaries that impressed the judges and landed her a spot as a finalist. She’ll need that poise and those sharp improvisational skills should she end up the winner of Nashville Star 4 and find herself faced with the daunting task of launching a country music career in less time than most artists take to promote one single.
McNamara has a long way to go, though, before she even gets the chance to beat those odds and become a bona fide Nashville star. “It’s like the planets have to align for someone to break through,” Salamon says. “But someone always does, so why not someone from the show?”