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Viva Nash Vegas

Succumbing to the charms of Nashville Star isn't as dirty as you think. But it still isn't good for country music.

12:00 AM, Apr 15, 2004 • By BILLY CERVENY
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AS WILLIE NELSON took the stage to sing "Whiskey River" at a recent live broadcast of Nashville Star, I swear I could hear the sound of snowplow engines turning over in hell. Nelson, the father of the outlaw country movement in the '70s, earned his spurs by giving the finger to the imaging junkies and spreadsheet cowboys of Nashville mainstream and forging his own path to fame across the dirt floors of Texas roadhouses. And here he was. The Red Headed Stranger. In the belly of the plastic beast.

Et tu, Willie?

NASHVILLE STAR is the USA Network's contribution to the crowded halls of reality television. It's American Idol meets The Real World, where wannabe country stars travel from all over to compete for the hearts of corn-fed America and a major record deal with Sony. Now in its second season, the final dozen or so contestants have been given the keys to a tricked out house on Music Row and are filmed navigating each other's personalities, providing, in theory, an inside look at the sausage making of the music industry.

Hosted by the robotic vixen Nancy O'Dell and broadcast live each week, the competitors take the stage at the Roy Acuff Theater, whose new set looks like a cross between Who Wants To Be A Millionaire and the New York, New York casino in Las Vegas. Backed by some of Music City's finest session players, contestants toss their hair and flex their musical muscle by performing a song consistent with the week's theme. Tonight's theme: the music of Willie Nelson.

The USA Network chose a panel of judges who, unlike American Idol's Hollywood Squares loaner, Paula Abdul, are still relevant to the market: Tracy Gershon is the head of artist development at Sony Records; the Warren Brothers, while not exactly changing the course of music, have been nominated as duo of the year by the Country Music Association five times running, and Billy Greenwood is a DJ at WSIX country radio in Nashville.

As I took my seat, the first thing that struck me was the fans. Most of the crowd was divided into sections according to the performer they supported. It felt like a redneck rendering of the big battle scene from Braveheart, with each clan rattling their glitter signs with puffy paint and mesh-back trucker hats to prepare for war.

THIS WASN'T the music business I know. I began singing and writing songs professionally about eight years ago in Atlanta. The first time I realized that I had truly made the plunge into the business, I was playing a gig at the Central City Tavern in Buckhead. It was about 2:00 a.m. and most of the patrons were sufficiently lubed from tequila shots. I was in the middle of covering Van Morrison's "Brown Eyed Girl" when a blue-eyed sorority lass leapt on the stage and began scratching my back. Normally this would be one of those rock-and-roll moments you dream about as a child. Heck, this was why I took guitar lessons in the first place.

It wasn't everything I'd dreamed of. Without a hint of embarrassment, the girl asked me if I would please change the lyrics to "Blue Eyed Girl" in her honor. She was obviously drunk, but when I tried to laugh it off she began to cuss me up a blue streak. I'll never forget it. She had the prettiest smile on her face the whole time. Just as I asked her if she "kissed her momma with that tongue," I noticed that she had thrown up red wine on the front of her white sweater. It was horrifying. And she was still scratching my back. I began to understand what people meant when they talked about paying your dues.

Since then I've moved to Nashville and put out two records. I've played just about every dirt-hole bar and slept in every 6 and 8 in America (that would be Motel 6 and Super 8). To save money I've curled up with my pistol in a tent at various KOA campgrounds--I've even slept in my car. I have a hard-earned grassroots following that's loyal and I love them.

So, I'm not going to lie. When I went to see Nashville Star, I had a knife in my teeth and intended to come home with scalps.

THERE'S SOMETHING fundamentally offensive about these sorts of reality shows. Nashville Star is trying to waive the cover charge of fame. The contestants were mainly singing other people's songs and for that, were going to be rewarded with a major record deal and an opportunity to be heard by hundreds of thousands. At Nashville Star there were no dues being paid; there was no vomit.

But worse than that, Nashville Star is a headhunt for country music's next flavor of the month. This lack of authenticity was the very thing I set out against when I moved to Nashville. I even named my back-up band The Nashville Resistance. I've been on my own country music holy war (a Yee-Haad, if you will).