'Nashville Star': The Down 'n' Dirty Version of 'Idol'

Contestants on country music talent show "Nashville Star" (search) might sing about having “friends in low places.” And that's exactly why the cable program is attracting a different kind of talent than the mainstream pop star-making machine over on network TV.

Fox's "American Idol" (search) manufactures pretty young pop singers — aged 16 to 24 on the day of the audition — who are fresh-faced and capable of mimicking Top 40 artists. On the other hand, USA's "Nashville Star," which kicked off its second season last weekend, draws more world-weary — and some might say authentic — talent in the form of country musicians who have long been fighting to break into the business.

“‘Nashville Star’ does focus more on the real experience than ‘American Idol,’” said Stephen Betts, editor-in-chief of Country Music Today magazine. “You get people who have really been through a whole lot.”

Last season’s winner on “Star,” 42-year-old Arkansas native Buddy Jewell (search), had been biting and clawing to realize his dream for years. Along the way, Jewell worked as a truck driver, a car washer, a salesman and a UPS man, singing in dingy local watering holes whenever he could. Now his album, “Buddy Jewell,” has gone gold and is inching toward platinum.

“He’s been kicking around the industry for a while,” said Paul Wells, director of the Center for Popular Music at Middle Tennessee State University. “It’s a good way for someone to get a lot of exposure that they might not otherwise get.”

This season of “Star” began Saturday night with 20 semi-finalists singing their lungs out for a chance for their big break. Though some contestants were in their late teens and early 20s like the “Idol” hopefuls, many were in their late 20s and late 30s — and most of the 10 finalists chosen weren’t the youngest ones. (An 11th contestant will be picked by the viewing public during the next episode.)

Among the finalists: a 35-year-old single mother and professional songwriter; a 39-year-old singer/songwriter and new mother who has been in the business for 20 years; a 28-year-old contractor who plays the washboard and other unusual instruments; and a 37-year-old backup singer who left her pharmaceutical sales job to try to make her dream come true.

It's tough to imagine "Idol" winners Kelly Clarkson (search), 22, and Ruben Studdard (search), 25, driving a truck, hawking prescription drugs or changing diapers.

Country Music Today's Betts, who was in the audience for the taping of the "Star" season premiere, said the show presents a more genuine version of a struggling musician's life than its network TV counterpart.

“They have a good cross-section of people who are in varying stages of their careers trying to make it in the music business,” said Betts. “It does represent a lot of the struggle they go through.”

But one pop culture expert said the point of “Idol” isn’t to depict what it’s like to become a music star in the traditional ways — it’s to give the public a say in who makes it big.

“‘American Idol’ is about empowerment for the audience,” said Neal Gabler, author of “Life: The Movie.” “This is a chance for the audience to say, 'We’re going to anoint people the music industry would never have anointed. These are the people we would make stars.'”

And even the country “Idol” copycat “Nashville Star” is still a reality show — with a small viewer choice component.

“Like most reality shows, it’s a little unrealistic,” said Betts. “The people involved are not out there doing their waitressing jobs and all that other stuff. They’re put in a house and they go through a lot of honing of their performance skills. That takes away from the real aspect of the average person trying to make it.”

Plus, despite the “Star” contestants’ past toils and troubles, they’re still getting a lucky break with the national TV exposure.

“This is a pretty artificial way to find the next big thing,” said Wells. “The real [test] will be in staying power over the long haul — whether they’ll be around five or 10 years from now or whether they’ll be regarded as a flash in the pan.”