Billy Ray Cyrus, 'Nashville Star' producer talk about sixth season
By Christopher Rocchio, 05/23/2008
Nashville Star and American Idol are both reality competition series, but the comparisons apparently end there.
"In some ways it's similar to Idol and in other ways, it's a totally different show," Nashville Star executive producer Howard T. Owen told reporters during a Tuesday conference call.
"[Nashville Star is] a totally different show with a different vibe, and a different energy, and a different heart. Our show has always been about heart, our show has been about truth. We've always said, 'Nashville Star: Where the music is real.' That's sort of been our internal tagline and that's what I'm believing, and that's what our show is about. Our people are real. The contestants this year are not sort of people who necessarily grew up in the semi-pros of the music industry. We have people who have lived lives. Country music is about storytelling. We're going to tell the story of these people in context of their search for the American dream."
Nashville Star's sixth season -- the first installment to air on NBC after its first five editions aired on its sister network USA -- will premiere Monday, June 9 at 9:30PM ET/PT.
"There will be changes," Owen told reporters. "Billy Ray Cyrus is the host and we have three new judges this year -- John Rich, and Jeffrey Steele, and Jewel. And just from a format perspective, there are some changes. We are now introducing duos and trios, so that's an exciting part of sort of country history for us in American music heritage. It's really exciting to us and opens up the competition and also the flavor of the kind of music that the people will hear... Then we'll be doing a variety of creative twists and concepts along the way."
While Cyrus has been a fixture in the country music industry for decades, he's also become familiar to reality TV viewers as a Dancing with the Starsfourth-season celebrity participant -- where he and partner Karina Smirnoff were best remembered for their unconventional "Bubba Chicken" jive and "Hillbilly Waltz" performances.
"This is like an absolute opportunity of a lifetime and I'm just so excited about being partners with NBC in this exciting venture," Cyrus told reporters about Nashville Star. "This has already been a great highlight of my career and we're just now getting started. So I'm very excited and very thankful to NBC for allowing me to come onboard."
One of the aspects of Nashville Star Cyrus said he's "most excited about" is the show's new judging panel.
"I think our panel is very unique to any competition that has ever existed before," he said.
"John Rich obviously has become a staple of country music right now," said Cyrus. "Quite frankly, every now and then somebody kicks the door open for country music with something new and fresh. And John Rich from Big & Rich has been able to do that and really brought a whole new vitality to country music, and that door right now is riding a wave of momentum that's very positive for country music."
"My goodness, she is amazing," said Cyrus. "I have been a huge fan for a long time, so to sit and to listen to her, I didn't know she was so witty... she's very sharp. She's a sharp cookie and I think she's going to entertain folks."
Rounding outNashville Star's sixth-season panel will be Steele, an award-winning songwriter and producer. Cyrus described Steele as "one of the greatest secrets in Nashville right now" and "hopes that this show will also showcase just what an incredible talent" he is.
"I do believe that Nashville Star will probably help expose this," said Cyrus. "Jeffrey Steele is today's Kris Kristofferson of Nashville. He is the guy with the pen and the paper that's writing the most and biggest hits coming out of Nashville right now. He is like the voice of country music. And I'm not sure a lot of people are aware of him, but I do think as the summer plays out when people see his personality, he's just very charming. I don't know any other way to say that. He's got a gift of gab obviously with his pen."
Cyrus expressed relief that he's not one of the judges and can instead simply host.
"Thank goodness I'm not a judge because I watched the judges and I watched the producers of the show trying to narrow down this list for the finalists," he said. "And quite frankly, it was pretty tough because the level of competition has risen tremendously - I mean tremendously. This was just an outpouring of great talent. And you know from the military on down, it was just really powerful."
The military aspect Cyrus was referring to came into play because Nashville Star's sixth season is airing as part of NBC's "All-American Summer," which will conclude with the network's broadcast of the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing, which will commence August 8.
"The show will be heavily themed as part of the NBC's American Summer," said Owen. "We did a big partnership with the military where we went on and Billy Ray personally went on the U.S. Iwo Jima and contestants from the military auditioned. They did casting all over the country for it and actually a serviceman to be on the show - a kid who is absolutely incredible."
"The first half of the show of the first episode is going to be the search. It's going to be the search for the next Nashville Star," explained Owen. "We're going to be showing how we found these people, where their first audition was, you know how Billy Ray interacted with them, how the judges did, so there will be some storytelling."
Nashville Star's sixth-season premiere broadcast will then continue with the Top 12 finalists performing for the first time on stage, with the show's judging panel eliminating one before the episode is over, according to Owen. However it will ultimately be up to home viewers to determine the show's sixth-season champ.
"That's the most exciting part," said Cyrus. "I mean it's all about the fans... It's the vote of America. That's really the ticket."
Owen described this season's grand prize as "really cool."
"It's a deal with Warner Brothers and AEG Live. So Warner Brothers - Reveille, and Warner Brothers, and AEG Live have partnered. The winner will get a major record deal and a North American tour," he said. In addition, the winner will get a performance from the Olympics on NBC in Beijing this summer. So what the winner gets is an opportunity of a lifetime -- a dream come true to bring your art, and to bring your artistry, and to bring your music to America, and to the people here, and it just feels huge... They also get a Toyota Tundra."
One of the show's other sixth-season format changes is the inclusion of duos or trios in the competition, which Owen described as an "interesting" creative decision by producers.
"It's a little bit of a gamble on our part to tell you the truth. We thought about it and we just decided to go with it," he said. "It's like sort of on the one side of the deal is two can be better than one or three can be better than one."
However Owen said the other side of that gamble is that it's "much easier" to tell the "rags to riches story" of a contestant if there's only one of them.
"So it's arguable that it goes both ways and we'll see how America reacts," he continued. "I do know that our duos and trios are really different and really awesome... It will be really interesting to see how it nets out."
Owen said one aspect of Nashville Star that won't change is that contestants will still be allowed to perform original material.
"You can source an original song or you can perform an original song," he said. "It will be made known by the judges or by the show whether you in fact wrote it or whether you found a songwriter to write it for you. So the audience -- the voting viewing audience -- will know."
Owen added that contestants picking to perform original material has been a popular choice among previous participants, and Cyrus said he hopes the trend continues.
"There will be instances where it's preferred," said Cyrus. "We're looking for a total package here; we're looking for a real American artist to emerge. And to me again, the definition of an artist is, you know, somebody that says, 'This is who I am. I hope you like it,' you know not, 'Tell me what you want me to be and I'll be it.'"
That comment could be considered a not-so-subtle shot at Idol, however Cyrus said he has no plans to emulate the Fox mega-hit's omnipresent host Ryan Seacrest.
"We're two different animals," said Cyrus about Seacrest. "He's a great human being. He's a fantastic host. I mean there's no doubt he's doing what he was born to do. He's amazing at it. That show wouldn't be knocking down the incredible numbers that they're knocking doubt without the fact that he was right there in the seat of that thing, from the foundation doing a great job. He's a great host. He's a great host... I'm not him nor will I ever attempt to be."
Owen was more open in his criticism of Idol.
"We were the first show to play with a live band. If you recall, the first two seasons of American Idol played the track," he reminded reporters. "You know they -- in my estimation -- mimed a lot of what we've done. Our contestants played instruments; our contestants wrote their own songs before American Idol contestants played instruments, before American Idol contestants wrote songs, which they experimented in one season."
Nashville Star sixth-season contestants will continue to be allowed to play instruments, but Owen assured that instruments will not be used as a crutch.
"I noticed when Jason Castro on American Idol is up their playing a guitar; you never saw a shot of his fingers," he said. "Generally speaking, if a Nashville Star contestant is up their playing - using a guitar as a prop - I can't tell you how fast John Rich, Jewel, or Jeffrey Steele are going to say, 'Bro, throw it down and do what you do, you know, because that's fake.' And they wouldn't like it."
"I can't speak a whole lot to the past; I can only speak to the present and the future," said Cyrus when asked about the lack of success of previous winners. "I see what's going on and I can tell you right now they have a cast that is very, very talented."