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Nashville Star Enters Third Season
By Ed Morris

"Nashville Star," the popular USA Network television talent search, is now in its third season of spinning straw into Gold records.  At least that's the aim.

The 2005 edition of the nine-week series, which began airing March 1, has a new host, correspondent and judges, a new record-company affiliate and, as might be expected, some new rules of play.  One element remains constant though - the nail-biting possibility that any week, your favorite contestant might be voted off the show and back to obscurity.

During the first two seasons, the top winners each earned a recording contract with Sony Music Nashville's Columbia or Epic record labels and a songwriting contract with Sony's music publishing division (Sony ATV/Tree). This year, Universal South Records will release the winner's debut album.  No built-in songwriting deal is involved now, although one episode will require the contestants to sing their own songs. 

One of the biggest changes from the two previous seasons is that this year's contestants are not living together in the same house during the contest. In place of these domestic scenes, a spokeswoman for the series said, "There is more onstage performance and excitement."

While talent shows tend to be heavy on the razzle-dazzle, "Nashville Star" is demonstrably more than smoke, mirrors and breathless theme music. The show's first winner, Buddy Jewell, did indeed "go Gold" with his self-titled Columbia Records debut album and garnered a 2003 CMA Horizon Award nomination. And he is scheduled to perform his new single on the April 5 episode of "Nashville Star."

Second runner up Miranda Lambert released her first (and largely self-written by writing or co-writing 11 of the 12 tracks) Epic Records CD, Kerosene, in March to considerable praise and first week sales of more than 40,000. Lambert has done what only five other Country artists in the history of Nielsen SoundScan have ever done by earning a No. 1 Billboard Top Country Albums chart debut on their very first album. She joins an elite club consisting of Wynonna (1992), Billy Ray Cyrus (1992), LeAnn Rimes (1996), Jewell (2003) and Gretchen Wilson (2004).

Last year's top winner, Brad Cotter, saw his freshman album, Patient Man (also on Epic), enter the Billboard Top Country Albums charts at No. 4.  However, he has since left the label.

This season's host is Curb Records Platinum-selling songbird LeAnn Rimes, someone who knows a thing or two about the winding staircase to stardom. Last year, she dipped her toe in the contest water by performing on the grand finale. Apart from her hosting duties, Rimes is currently promoting her latest album, This Woman.

"LeAnn is a superstar whose presence grounds the show firmly in its Nashville Country Music roots," explained Jeff Boggs, who joins Ben Silverman and H.T. Owens as Executive Producers this season. "As 'Nashville Star' grows in popularity, we must continue to feed it creatively with big name talent that will inspire our Country Music hopefuls."

"As a singer and songwriter, I have great admiration for many of the budding stars who come out to try their hand at performing," Rimes said. "I can relate to the hopes and aspirations of all the contestants."

The new judges are singer-songwriter Phil Vassar, rock 'n' Country artist Bret Michaels and talent handler/music executive Anastasia Brown. Vassar isn't exactly new to "Nashville Star." He made a guest appearance on one of the last shows of the 2003 season, pairing with finalist Brandon Silveira for a version of his own "Just Another Day In Paradise." Vassar's latest album is Shaken Not Stirred on Arista Nashville Records. 

"We wanted to put together a panel of judges with their fingers on the pulse of what's hot and exciting in Country Music today," said Libby Hansen, Vice President, Alternative Series and Specials, USA Network. "Phil Vassar is one of the hottest names in Country Music and knows what it takes to make it in this business and specifically what to look for in the next 'Nashville Star.'"

Michaels, who recently has been writing and recording Country Music, is best known as the lead singer of the rock group Poison. His forthcoming album is Freedom In Sound and he produced the brand new album from Forty5 South, We're Country Because We Can, set for release April 26 on TILO Records.

"Having sold over 25 million records, Bret Michaels is one of the best-known and longest-running successes in the music business," said Jeff Wachtel, Executive Vice President, Original Programming, USA Network. "But what will surprise his fans, is that he has always had one foot firmly planted in Country Music.  He has the crossover appeal that we are looking for in our judges panel this season."

Brown has worked in various artist-development capacities with Peter Frampton, Waylon Jennings, Sting and Keith Urban.  She is head of 821 Music Group and the wife of Tony Brown, Senior Partner of Universal South Records. 

In the past, the judges could eliminate candidates in the early rounds, but in the new season that chore is left to phone-in votes or online votes on www.nashvillestar.yahoo.com from the television viewing audience immediately after each episode. This co-branded Yahoo! Music and USA Network Web site features a behind-the-scenes look at the contestants, exclusive clips and each week's footage of contestants and special guests.

"We are excited to help pick the next 'Nashville Star' as this is an extension of our continued commitment to support up-and-coming artists," said Jay Frank, Head of Programming and Label Relations for Yahoo! Music. "It is our hope that with the extensive reach of Yahoo! Music we will help 'Nashville Star' and its contestants gain incredible exposure and a forum to reach new and existing fans."

"Teaming up with Yahoo! Music is a clear advantage for USA," said Chris McCumber, Senior Vice President of Marketing and Brand Strategy for USA Network. "It allows us to extend the 'Nashville Star' brand across Yahoo!'s massive user base."

"Every one of the finalists could easily be winners this year," said Wachtel. "Yahoo! has streamlined the voting process but the talent is so phenomenal that picking a winner is going to be a real challenge for the audience."

Comedian Cledus T. Judd is serving as the show's special correspondent and color commentator, a role than enables him to wisecrack about the follies of this business the contestants are so keen to enter.

Again this year, the shows are being broadcast from the BellSouth Acuff Theatre adjacent to the Grand Ole Opry House in Nashville.  Except for the first segment, which was taped Feb. 10 and broadcast on March 1, the hour-long episodes are staged in front of an audience and aired live on Tuesdays from 10-11 PM ET/PT.  The final episode on April 26 will run 90 minutes. 

Besides singing bouts among the contestants, each episode also features performances by major Country acts, including guests Big & Rich featuring Cowboy Troy, the Charlie Daniels Band, Sara Evans and Montgomery Gentry. Additional artists will be announced throughout the season, which also promises several surprise guests.

The talent search for this season started last October in Long Beach, Calif., and swept back through 18 other cities across the country and into Canada.  Season one kicked off with 12 finalists and season two with 20 semi-finalists. The current season bowed with a more manageable class of 10 - five men and five women. 

"Going through the process of screening thousands upon thousands of performers, the quality of untapped talent continues to amaze me," said Boggs. "The wonder of this show is that it works.  In this ocean of hopefuls, the talent was so strong that we had a tough time getting it down to only ten. This will be our best season yet."

This year's finalists are Justin David, 30, from Marshfield, Mo.; Jody Evans, 28, Donaldson, Ark.; Jenny Farrell, 35, Albuquerque, N.M.; Erika Jo Heriges, 18, Angleton, Texas; Christy McDonald, 29, Tabor City, N.C.; Jason Meadows, 33, Calera, Okla.; Josh Owen, 19, Brownsboro, Texas; Casey Simpson, 19, Cerritos, Calif.; Tamika Tyler, 33, Coffs Harbour, Australia; and Jayron Weaver, 22, Dallas, Ga.

Several finalists are already regular or full-time regional performers, but there is also a policeman, a rancher, a music minister and a record company receptionist in the lineup.

On March 22, Universal South released Nashville Star 2005 Finalists, an album of cover songs by the show's participants. On it, David sings "Ring Of Fire;" Heriges, "Break Down Here;" Meadows, "Workin' Man Blues;" McDonald, "Long Black Train," Simpson, "Love Somebody Like You;" Tyler, "You Don't Even Know Who I Am;" Weaver, "I'm Already There;" Evans, "Three Nickels And A Dime;" Owen, "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way;" and Farrell, "Seven Year Ache."

Free general admission tickets to the live shows are available to the public on a first-come, first-served basis for every "Nashville Star" broadcast on the Web at www.usanetwork.com/nashvillestar or simply by showing up at the Opry Plaza at 6:00 PM CST (doors open at 7:00 PM).  Each week, one lucky member of the audience will receive an iPOD and one will receive an Epiphone acoustic guitar signed by all the contestants through a random drawing held one-half hour before showtime.

"Nashville Star" was created by Reveille and is produced by Jon Small and his production company, Picture Vision.

USA Network is cable television's leading provider of original series and feature movies, sports events, off-net television shows and blockbuster theatrical films and is seen in more than 88 million U.S. homes.  USA Network is a program service of NBC Universal Cable a division of NBC Universal, one of the world's leading media and entertainment companies in the development, production, and marketing of entertainment, news, and information to a global audience.     

Buddy Jewell, Miranda Lambert and the third season "Nashville Star" winner are scheduled to appear at 2005 CMA Music Festival that takes place in Downtown Nashville, Thursday - Sunday, June 9-12.

Four-day ticket packages for CMA Music Festival are on sale now. Packages are divided into four categories, based on the level of reserved seating at The Coliseum. Ticket packages include the Nightly Concerts at The Coliseum; Daily Concerts at Greased Lightning® Daytime Stages; daily admittance to the Wrangler® Fan Fair (Exhibit Hall) featuring the Acoustic Corner; Bush's® Baked Beans Family Zone; Fun Zone; Sports Zone and performance stage; CMA Music Festival After HoursT; free in-town shuttles; the CMA Music Festival Program Book; CMA Music Festival pin; and more.

Four-day ticket packages are easy to purchase. Order over the phone by calling toll-free, 1-800-CMA-FEST (262-3378); visit www.CMAfest.com to download an order form to fax or mail; visit www.Ticketmaster.com to buy online or charge-by-phone at (615) 255-9600. Prices do not include applicable handling fees. Ticket prices are subject to change without notice. Order early for the best available reserved seat at The Coliseum. All sales are final and non-refundable.

For up-to-the-minute information about tickets, travel information, schedules, artists appearing and more, visit www.CMAfest.com and sign up for e-news or purchase official CMA Music Festival merchandise.

2005 CMA Music Festival is organized and produced by the Country Music Association. CMA Board member Tony Conway is the Executive Producer of CMA Music Festival. MJI Programming, a division of Premiere Radio Networks, is the official radio broadcaster. Promotional partners include Bush's® Baked Beans, Crisco®, Greased Lightning®, NBC Daytime and Wrangler®. Fan Fair is a registered trademark of CMA.

On the Web: www.nashvillestar.yahoo.com or www.usanetwork.com/nashvillestar

© 2005 CMA Close Up News Service / Country Music Association, Inc.

Photographer: John Russell

Photography courtesy of "Nashville Star" / USA Network


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