John Rich said he takes a "no nonsense" approach to critiquing Nashville Star sixth-season finalists, and while some initially find it hard to handle most eventually think it's helpful.

"I think at the end of the day -- what they've told me -- is they're very appreciative of it because it really made them come to grips with the level of where they're getting ready to step to and the gravity of the situation," he told reporters during a Friday conference call. 

"This really is their shot.  The TV show will be over and then it's time to get down to reality.  Real reality.  Not reality TV, reality of life."

Nashville Star's sixth season will come to a close during tonight's live broadcast at 10PM ET/PT on NBC -- with either Shawn Mayer, Melissa Lawson or Gabe Garcia taking home the title based on home viewer votes cast immediately following last Monday night's broadcast.

"Gabe and Melissa without a doubt are vocally head-and-shoulders above Shawn Mayer.  Just as straight ahead singers, they're head-and-shoulders above her.  And I also think their stories are really, really compelling," Rich told reporters.

"I personally believe it's between Gabe and Melissa at this point.  I would be happy to produce either one of them.  If Shawn sneaks up and takes it away from them, I think there's massive potential with her as well.  But if you're asking me as a betting man, I think it's Gabe and Melissa and I think it's a horse race.  I think it's too close to call."

Rich specifically singled out Lawson's story, as she's a mother of five who recently shed 70 pounds before appearing on the show.

"To have somebody up there who is a mother of five and battling her weight issue and actually winning and succeeding at that, and then with just this gift of vocal ability that she has, you just don't see that everyday," he explained.  "When the thing's over, if she doesn't win it and she wants to work with me, I'll be sitting on go."

In addition, Rich also talked about Garcia's background as a Hispanic country singer as something that sets him apart.  While Rich added Garcia "had a great voice" from the moment the two met, the sixth-season finalist "came in and he looked like he just gotten off of work" and was "totally not-prepared looking at all."

"I think throughout the show you've watched him go from this really shy, introverted guy on stage to his last couple performances, really engaging the audience.  His confidence level is going up," said Rich about Garcia.  "You can feel a different presence around him now, on and off the stage."

Similar to how he feels about Lawson, Rich thinks Garcia will have no problem making it in Nashville.

"I think he's got a great shot at winning the show," said Rich.  "If he doesn't win the show, I think there will be people lining up in Nashville to sign this guy to a record deal."
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Rich added that Garcia and Lawson definitely have "god-given talent," while Mayer has it "to a certain degree."  He said when the competition began, Mayer "came in and just had a scowl on her face" with a "dark cloud hanging over her head."

"I think she's gone through a lot of personal changes.  I don't think on an artistic level she's gone from terrible to great.  I think she's pretty much remained consistent on the level of talent she's given us," he explained.  "But on the personal side, she feels like a completely different person.  She's smiling, and she really feels like she's bringing something to the table."

Rich also has a bit more history with Mayer, as she "fired" the country musician as her musical mentor earlier in the sixth season.  Rich told reporters both he and Mayer are "hard-headed," adding his mentoring style didn't mesh with her personality.

"That was a very gutsy call on her part, and probably the right call to make," said Rich about Mayer's decision to cut him lose. 

"It's like I explained to her, just because somebody like myself has a reputation of writing hit songs and producing hit records and you have a lot of success and momentum does not mean that you work well with everyone.  A lot of the creative process in music comes down to chemistry between people.  If she felt like our chemistry was off and it wasn't giving her what she needed... That's really the way it goes down in the real world."

So Mayer began to work with fellow sixth-season judge and musical mentor Jeffrey Steele, whom Rich called a "better choice."

"He's so much more easy going than I am," said Rich.  "I think that's what helped her in the end, having someone with more patience that would be easier with her and the mentoring process."

Now Rich thinks Mayer might be "the dark horse to win it."

"I would not have bet on that at the beginning of the show.  I was shocked that she made the Final 3 and Ashlee Hewitt did not," said Rich.

Regardless of which of the finalists takes home the grand prize of a Warner Bros. record deal; a North American tour; a performance at the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing; and a Toyota Tundra -- Rich said it's not going to be a walk in the park.

"Whoever wins this show, it's not going to be an easy ride.  They've still got to go make great records, they've got to visit those [radio] stations, they've got to do the meet-and-greets, they've got to spend those 20-hour days on the road," he said.  "I think our Final 3, I think they do have the fortitude to do what it takes to become a bonafide Nashville Star."

In addition, Rich said it's important for whichever finalists don't win to have an "exit strategy."

"You need to have something lined up, you need to be showcasing in Nashville within 20 days of the show being over because people in Nashville are interested," he said.  "They hadn't even thought of that.  I said, 'Don't let the heat of what you have going on here escape you.  Take advantage of it.'  I think any one of these three finalists -- whether they win the show or not -- could have a record deal before the end of 2008 if they play their cards right."

Rich is responsible for producing the sixth-season champ's debut album, a task he told reporters he was never concerned about because "country music fans" are the ones voting for the winner.

"I know the country music audience," he said.  "I know at the end of the day the country audience is going to pick someone who's great, someone that is the real deal. I think no matter who wins out of the Final 3, I can make a great record."

Still, Rich reiterated comments he made on-air earlier in the season that he thinks the show's judges -- himself, Steele and Jewel -- should have chosen the finalists, not NBC.

"Country music fans across America, it's a cultural type thing.  It's not just a song or a radio station -- it's a culture," he explained.  "I think people that haven't grown-up around that culture don't necessarily understand what artists have a shot at really connecting with our audience.  I think one misstep in this process was not having real Nashville country-music cultural people involved in the talent-picking process more heavily.  I think that was a misstep."

As a result, Rich said "artists that should have never been on there and did not represent the best of what Nashville has to offer and would never have a chance with connecting with our audience" ended up on the show.  However he added the voting public eventually got it right.

"The proof is in the pudding," said Rich.  "The country fans that have voted throughout this show have voted it down to the Final 3 -- and in my opinion -- all of the Final 3 would have a shot in the real world."

Rich said he signed on to do Nashville Star to help the country music industry -- not to become a "television star."

"That's never been my goal ever.  I make country music, I write country songs, I produce records and I tour.  That's my life," he explained.  "TV for me is a way for me to hopefully have a positive impact on the music I love, and broaden our base and broaden the spectrum of country music."

While Rich called American Idol judge Simon Cowell "great" at recognizing signable talent when he sees it and having an ear for music, he also said they are both very different.

"When it comes to, 'Has Simon Cowell ever done a tour?  Has Simon Cowell ever written a hit song?  Has Simon Cowell ever lost a record deal?  Has Simon Cowell ever done a meet-and-greet for 400 people then stepped on stage with a 102-degree fever and sang for 40,000 and had a standing ovation at the end of the show?'  No. No to all those questions," said Rich.

Instead, Rich said it's his own "experience" as an artist, songwriter, producer and talent evaluator that gives him the edge over Cowell.

"I think across the board I just have more experience than he does," said Rich.  "When I say something to an artist -- from an artist to another artist -- I believe it carries more weight and it's more realistic in what they're really going to be dealing with."