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Sunday, 19 August, 2007 11:34 AM

CMA: TV Talent Contests Help Launch Country Acts


Lyric Street recording artist Bucky Covington.



19 Recordings/BNA recording artist Kellie Pickler.

By Deborah Evans Price
© 2007 CMA Close Up News Service

One has to look no farther than the recent success of "American Idol" alumnae and labelmates Kellie Pickler (19 Recordings/BNA Records) and Carrie Underwood (19 Recordings/Arista) to document the impact talent competitions provide in launching new artists. However, FOX-TV's "American Idol" isn't the only such vehicle to jump start aspiring Country Music artists.

Competitions have long provided a talent pool for A&R executives at Country record labels. Sawyer Brown made its bow on CBS-TV's "Star Search" back in 1983 and became the first winner of the nationally televised show.

Brad Cotter, George Canyon, Buddy Jewell, Erika Jo, Miranda Lambert, John Arthur Martinez, Chris Young and newcomers Angela Hacker, Jason Meadows and Lance Miller are among the artists who got their start on Music Row via USA Network's "Nashville Star." In addition to those artists, Lyric Street Records' Bucky Covington and Josh Gracin both gained a national audience via "American Idol."

LeAnn Rimes hosted the 25th anniversary of the Colgate Country Showdown as North Carolina native Megan Peeler walked away with the $100,000 prize. The televised one-hour special was syndicated nationwide by MG Perin, Inc., and also aired on GAC (Great American Country). Throughout the contest's 25-year history, Garth Brooks, Tracy Byrd, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sara Evans, Brad Paisley, Martina McBride, Tim McGraw and Neal McCoy are some of the artists who won the competition at either the state or local level.

"It meant everything in getting jump started that fast," Sawyer Brown frontman Mark Miller recalled of the group's "Star Search" experience, which fans still remember as the band's springboard. "The TV show made such a big splash, especially back then for Country Music. Our first two albums went Gold and Platinum. Back in '85 for a Country act to sell 100,000 units was a big deal and we sold 250,000 albums the first couple of weeks, if I remember correctly."

Sawyer Brown still records for Curb Records and, in addition to his work with the band, Miller has several other endeavors. He owns Beach Street Records, a Christian label that is home to the Platinum-selling band Casting Crowns. He also produces other artists, among them Covington, who placed eighth on "American Idol" during its fifth season.

"He has a cool, cool sounding voice," Miller said. "I discovered Bucky because my son was his biggest fan. Literally, when Bucky got voted off, my son Gunnar made me call him. He said, 'Daddy you have to help him.' That's literally the way the whole thing began."

Needless to say, Covington was pleasantly surprised when he got the call from Miller. "The day after I got voted off the show, Mark Miller called my hometown newspaper and got my phone number and called me up," said Covington, still sounding somewhat incredulous at his good fortune.

Miller and his son weren't the only ones taking notice of Bucky, which made things easier when Miller began looking for a label deal for Covington. "I really didn't have to shop him around," Miller said. "I knew Doug [Howard] and Randy [Goodman] at Lyric Street. I literally just made a phone call and they pretty much said 'yes.' Doug had seen Bucky throughout the show and was a fan."

Sawyer Brown has taken Covington out on the road, and Miller said he's seen first hand the recognition generated by the "American Idol" phenomenon. "It is mind boggling how many people saw that show," Miller said. "When we bring him out on stage, we don't even have to introduce him. They see that long blond hair and they start going nuts. They know exactly who it is."

Lyric Street Records President Randy Goodman is not surprised. "We've always known the power of network television," he said. "You'd have to be a monk to not know the impact 'American Idol' is having on the general population."

Goodman said "American Idol" exposure helps acts break more quickly. "With somebody like Carrie Underwood and Josh and Bucky, you've got acts that are already branded to a certain degree. Radio stations know who Bucky is or Kellie Pickler is or who Josh is, and they definitely know who Carrie Underwood is. So, you've got a built in awareness and that awareness creates interest. Radio is always going to be the primary way that I sell records and that I alert and activate the audience, but 'American Idol' has created an instant recognition and awareness."

Covington said "American Idol" exposure definitely helps put a new artist on the fast track. "One of the toughest things for a new artist is you have to put out three to four good songs before people know who you are," he said. "The greatest thing about the show is you've got fans before you put the single out. That's a great head start."

Goodman said that Covington getting to work with Miller is a major plus for the new artist because he understands what it's like to gain acclaim from a talent competition. "He went through that process," Goodman said. "What's great about Mark as a mentor is he came from a contest show. He won it. He understands that immediate love that everybody pours on you, but he also understands that to build a long term career, you have to take that foundation, that kind of branding, and build on top of that with great, great songs. Mark and Sawyer Brown did that and Mark has proven to be an extraordinary businessman. There is not a better person than Mark that Bucky could be working with."

Covington's labelmate Gracin said talent contests are a great way for aspiring acts to break into the business.

"I tried to get into Country Music a long time before the show," Gracin said. "I recorded a CD and tried to plug it and get things going. It never worked. So I took a step back from music and went into the Marine Corps. Then the show came up and I thought that would be a pretty cool way to get my foot in Country Music. I tried it and I got a spot on the show. It's done wonders for me." Gracin has scored a Gold album, a No. 1 single and two Top 5 singles.

"American Idol" exposure helped make Pickler's debut album, Small Town Girl, a tremendous success. Like Gracin, she's grateful to have had "Idol" as a launch pad.

"Everyone watches it and they get to be a part of our success," she said. "They pick the winner and they get to watch you grow from the very beginning of a career, all the way to the top. And they support you afterwards, buying your albums and coming to your concerts."

Though "American Idol's" TV exposure provides that competition with tremendous visibility, the longest running Country talent competition - and the one that has launched some of the most successful artists - is the Colgate Country Showdown. It is produced by Special Promotions, Inc., which partners with 470 radio stations across the country. In 2006, the Showdown sponsored more than 550 live shows, exposing lots of new talent. Launched in 1982, Wrangler was the original sponsor of the event.

Over the years Coca Cola, Jimmy Dean, Dodge, GMC and True Value have served as title sponsors, but the one constant throughout the years has been Dean Unkefer, who spearheads the Showdown.

"Through production manuals and media coordination, we assist radio stations and fairs in their promotion of the Showdown," Unkefer said. "It's synergy. We all take pride in it and there's a place for everyone on this program."

Unkefer loves helping aspiring acts be seen and heard. "The most important thing in the Showdown is not winning or losing but having the opportunity to perform in front of live audiences and help contestants be exposed to industry professionals," he said.

Such exposure can have longterm effects. Troy Gentry won the Jim Beam Talent Contest in 1994 as a solo act, before teaming with Eddie Montgomery to form Montgomery Gentry on Columbia Records. Jim Beam supported his burgeoning career and continues to do so by sponsoring Montgomery Gentry.

"They kept up with what was going on with my solo career and tried to help me out," Gentry said. "Then Eddie and I got put together and the people who were involved in the Jim Beam contest contacted our management company to see if we could hook up for a sponsorship."

Gentry encourages other aspiring artists to try the competition route. "I think the winning of the contest was encouragement for me to keep on playing, which led to Eddie and I getting back together to form Montgomery Gentry."

Though there can sometimes be a stigma associated with being a talent contest winner, those who have used it as a portal to the music industry don't regret it.

"If this is bad, I've got it good," Pickler laughed. "At the end of the day, regardless of how you make it, you've made it. I can only thank 'American Idol' for the exposure they've given me in launching my career."
Gracin is also proud of his 'Idol' past. "It will always be a part of where I came from and what I've done," Gracin said. "I never try to downplay that at all because without it, I wouldn't be where I'm at. It's been very instrumental in everything."

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Angela Hacker wins "Nashville Star." is Detroit's exclusive media outlet for this syndicated weekly column!



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Unauthorized duplication or use of Text, Site Template, Graphics and or Site Design is Prohibited by Federal and International laws. See our Notice/Disclaimer.