The hit reality show Nashville Star has moved from Bravo to NBC this summer with the new season kicking off on Monday June 9 at 9:30 PM ET. The revamped series features new judges (Jewel, John Rich of Big & Rich and Jeffrey Steele) and a new host in Billy Ray Cyrus. I was in on a conference call with Billy Ray Cyrus and executive producer Howard T. Owens and here's what they had to say about the new season.
Can you talk about will there be any changes this year?
Howard T. Owens: There will be changes. Billy Ray Cyrus is the host with (unintelligible) and we obviously have three new judges this year - John Rich, and Jeffrey Steele, and Jewel. And just from a - the 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. There's a group of, you know, signing groups and, you know, you have The Judds, and you have the Kingston Trio, and you have Rascal Flatts. So introducing duos and trios is really exciting to us and opens up the competition and also the flavor of the kind of music that the people will hear. And we - the other, you know, big changes are obviously our judges and our hosts who bring so much to the table, and then what we'll be doing, you know a variety of creative twists and concepts along the way. The show will be heavily themed as part of the NBC's American Summer. 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. And I'll stop talking with that.
Billy Ray, can you talk about how you got involved with this? You are busy with all of that. Just can you speak to that?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Yeah, first I'd just like to follow up where Howard left off about being on the battleship up in Norfolk, Virginia and being there with the military and seeing, you know, the whole country coming together in the celebration of music at a time where there's just so much turmoil. It's already been a highlight for me and we haven't even really started filming the real show yet. This is like an absolute opportunity of a lifetime and I'm just so excited about being partners with NBC in this exciting venture. Again, there's a lot of - there's some new dynamics to the show this year that I think are really going to be exciting. Being on that battleship - I don't know if you're familiar with a song I wrote called Some Gave All, but Some Gave All is a very decorated song throughout the military. And when we stood on that (hood) of that battleship and sang Some Gave All and all those families, and kids, and moms, and dads, they all sung along. Again, 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.
Can you talk about the judges who are also mentors - the mentoring part of that?
Billy Ray Cyrus: That - now you just turned me on right there. That's one of the things that I'm most excited about. I think our panel is very unique to any competition that has ever existed before. John Rich obviously has become a staple of country music right now that, you know, 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. Second of all to see an entertainer and a singer/songwriter like Jewel, I mean my goodness, she is amazing. 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, and the way she came up with this - some of these things in this pre-tape, she's very sharp. She's a sharp cookie and I think she's going to entertain folks. And last but not least, I have to comment on probably one of the greatest secrets in Nashville right now. But I do believe that Nashville Star will probably help expose this - one of the judge's names is Jeffrey Steele. And 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. And speaking of gift of gab, I should probably hush up and let Howard (talk).
Howard T. Owens: But Billy Ray is right and, you know, we have four very contemporary, very now artists who are anchoring the show in Billy Ray, and Jeffrey Steele, and John Rich, and Jewel. And I think, you know, what Billy Ray and I witnessed on the judging panel in our preliminary runs was Jewel sitting there giving voice lessons from her chair saying, "Open up your throat like this if you want to sing. You're being too nasal." John Rich saying - looking at a trio and saying, "Why are you guys singing in three microphones. All get around one microphone and harmonize." And Jeffrey Steele going up to a guy and saying, "You're playing that note wrong on the guitar. Grab the guitar like this." I mean it was very visceral, it was very real, and it's nothing like you've seen on any other show.
I was in the Top 20 on Season Two of Nashville Star back when The Warren Brothers were judges and Nancy O'Dell was hosting. And it sounds like I missed the boat because this sounds like an amazing season. It's really bumped up a lot. What is the grand prize this year?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I'll let you take that, Howard.
Howard T. Owens: Hey, yeah I'm sorry you're not around this year too. I'm sorry we missed you Season Two.
Howard T. Owens: But the grand prize this year is 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, you know, a major record deal and a tour - a North American tour. And in addition, the winner will get a performance from the Olympics on NBC in Beijing this summer, August, right after the show launches. So what the winner gets is a - you know 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. You know Warner Brothers and AEG Live have been incredible. And as Billy Ray referenced, you know NBC has been so utterly supportive of our efforts and it just feels incredible. They also get a Toyota Tundra.
Well in seasons past, Billy Ray as an artist, what do you - it seems like some of the winners have faded off the map. Well why do you think that is and what do you think is going to change that this year?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I can't speak a whole lot to the past; I can only speak to the present and the future. Because now - I know - I can feel. I see what's going on and I can tell you right now they have a cast that is very, very talented. As a matter of fact, I'd have a hard time whittling it down to nine right now. I mean they - we've got - I think it's 10 to 12 major top contenders - very talented. It's about the total package of an artist - a singer, a songwriter, and entertainer, and the intangible. How much are you willing to grow, how much are you willing to listen to these judges and take the steps forward, you know. I think there's a lot of missing links to the exact equation of, you know, what's going to bring the winner, but I do know you know those things combined with the fact that America votes is what really, really makes it exciting. Now I would like to step off just for a second Howard. You triggered a thought to my mind and I don't want it to get away. I know that part of the end result is something very special with Beijing, China and this is a question to you. Is there anything we can do as this summer progresses to put together some type of package to where the end result is when this deal makes it to China, can we go a little bit further south and help these folks from this earthquake? Is there something we can do? Is there something that we can do to utilize this for a common good and - do you know what I'm saying?
Howard T. Owens: Yeah.
Billy Ray Cyrus:It's just an off the wall (question) for you to ponder later, but if...
Howard T. Owens: Totally. No, I mean we would like to obviously help these people, so anything that we can do to be a part of that would be incredible. I'd also like to just mention that, you know, part of I think the old - you know the old show was on cable. You know it was - it's a show that, you know, has you know obviously it was on cable, you don't have a broadcast platform. But I feel like we did pretty well with some of our stars and it was very telling that... That Sunday night Miranda Lambert won Best Album of the Year. I believe that was the award on the AMAs. So that's a pretty huge accomplishment for a girl who was on Season One in the final episode of the show and obviously created a huge fan base from our show. So I feel like we have a great history of picking talent and I think it's going to really - as Billy Ray mentioned, the talent this year is incredible and very diverse, and very representative of what American music is today.
Real quick, Billy Ray, has your daughter (Miley Cyrus) ever thought about going Country?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Hey, you know what, whether she's thought about it or not, she is and can't deny it.
Hey Billy Ray, this is for you. What's the appeal of being the host rather than a judge?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Well I - you know I'm not one to judge anybody. I'm not one - I guess that comes from one who has been judged too much. And I'm not one to pass judgment on anybody - that's not what I do. I couldn't do it. It's not even an option for me. I don't do that. You know what I will do in my capacity will - I've been down - I've been to the fair and I've seen the bear... I've walked these streets and knocked on the doors of Nashville, you know, for well over 15 years before that first album, Some Gave All, you know. I will be a good mentor to these young people and anything that they want to ask me, in good faith I'll give them the best answer I can you know possibly think of that is the truth. And the one thing I preface all my statements with to everybody is the one thing I do know is I don't know nothing.
Now are you filming a movie right now?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I am neck deep in Hannah Montana. Not only that, I'm finishing my new album. My new album is appropriately titled, Back to Tennessee. It's a song I wrote with hit singer/songwriter Matthew Wilder. You probably know Matthew had a humongous hit in the '80s with many, many big pop number one records throughout the last 20 years. He and I - when I found out we were going to be filming The Hannah Montana Movie in Tennessee, I got real excited and my spirit started dancing a little bit, and I grabbed my guitar and we wrote this song called Back to Tennessee. It's just a very honest feeling of what it feels like to be coming home.
And will that be in the film?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Yeah as a matter of fact, I do perform it in the film. I perform that song in the movie. And so my point is I'm finishing up the album, I'm doing my vocals, and harmonies, and some mixes and stuff. I'm doing Billy Ray Cyrus: and Nashville Star kicks off in a week. So I've definitely got a full plate right now and the good news is I'm really excited about all these things coming together while they are. It's an intangible of momentum and momentum is always that thing that either you've got it or you don't. And for right now, it's kind of in my corner so I want to, you know, get the music out, and get this film done, and do all of these things to the very best of my ability.
This is a question for Billy Ray. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about what so like this means for the country music industry and particularly when you talked about your own experience of trying to break into the industry?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Well, I think there's a couple things that are going to factor in. Number one is our panel of judges who - I mean this is a - you know not only are they the critically acclaimed, you know, movers and shakers of the industry and talented artists and singer/songwriters, you know they've walked these streets too, you know. Second of all, our panel that we've already got, our contestants, I've seen them firsthand. And I know - and 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. 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. So I think putting those two things together and then combining the fact that this was the first season on NBC, that's a real - that's a good spot to be with the right thing going on.
And do you think it means that maybe country music is - I mean I live in Boston and it's very popular here. But do you think it is even making country music more - I don't know if mainstream is the right word, but more into the public eye and that people everywhere are learning more about country music? Have you seen a shift in how people view country music or feel about it?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I can only speak of what I've been (through) personally and you being from Boston, I can say two words, Indian Ranch. If you listen to me do interviews around the world, people will say, "What's some of your favorite shows you play around the world?" I'll always say, "Indian Ranch." Indian Ranch is probably I don't know 45 to 60 miles out of Boston. I've played it every year since 1992. It's one of the biggest, funnest parties on a lake anywhere on this planet. It's great. To me, country music has always been alive and well in Boston, but you've got to keep in mind Achy Breaky was also a big pop record. So our foundation there has remained pretty solid throughout, you know, from the young people, to the middle-aged folks, to mammow and pappow, and now throwing Hannah Montana in the mix hasn't hurt things either.
Howard T. Owens: You know when Billy Ray and I first met and talked about the show, we talked about Billy Ray's roots in Tennessee and some of his influences. And you know we talked about, you know - I mean because when we talked about the show, we talked about where we thought country music was today - country music representative of George Strait, to Sugarland, to Bon Jovi, to Jewel, to Billy Ray Cyrus, to you know the greatest American rockers and the greatest American players and country music singers. You know and when we looked back to the show, the kind of music we're going to be playing is not just, you know, what people would call radio pure country, but we're playing - we want to play Bob Seiger. We want our contestants to play, you know, Lynard Skynard. We want our contestants to play, you know, things that, you know, aren't branding country music to what it traditionally is branded, but using all the influences of country music. And Billy Ray knows a lot of those influences and it was great to know we were on the same page.
Billy Ray, would you have done a show like this if you had had the opportunity? Do you wish you'd had the opportunity like Nashville Star exited when you were trying to get into the business?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Oh my goodness, what I wouldn't give. I could look 15 years younger. (I've been around). I had to go down a lot of unpaved highways. I had to learn through some mistakes that I would make. As you know, Thomas Edison said, "The most important ingredient for success is failure." Every time you fail, you eliminate one way that won't work and therefore being one way closer to the one that will. Well trust me, I failed in just about every imaginable way you can fail at trying to attempt something, but somewhere throughout the persistence of all that, I found one way that would work and it became that first album, Some Gave All, with the leadoff single, Achy Breaky Heart. But I had to put in a lot of time and effort to get to that point where Nashville Star if it could have been there could have saved me, you know, 15 years of heartache.
Will the contestants again this year be required to perform original material?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Oh, you know what, not only required there will be instances where it's preferred. 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."
As far as how the winner is determined, will there be any changes in the voting process, or will it still be (fan voters)? And will judges have any input in the voting?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Oh my goodness, have you seen our panel of judges?
Billy Ray Cyrus: As you well know, that's three of the most respected artists in the - walking the planet today. I mean this is an unbelievable panel there, you know. Jeffrey Steele as you well know, I'm comparing him to today's Kris Kristofferson. There is not doubt he's one of the - he's the voice of what's coming out of Nashville right now with all the hit songs he writes. I mean again to kind of address that other question; songwriting will be a part of the (package).
Oh, okay and there will still be a fan-voted award show though?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Well, that's the most exciting part, you know. I mean it's all about the fans and you know the way that - you know it's the vote of America. That's what makes this - you know that's really the ticket.
It seems like in the past that the show has not really worked with country radio very closely as sort of a follow up to the winner. Will there be any - do you think there might be some change in that where you sort of try to work with radio a little bit more to promote the winner of the show?
Billy Ray Cyrus: I'm going to let Howard address the bulk of that, but let me just start it off by saying I do know for a fact I'm seeing it, I'm feeling it, and quite frankly working it right now. Country radio is very involved with this show and there's a great deal of excitement about the show, the connection with NBC, the panel of judges, the momentum of country music. Country music is in a great spot right now. My buddy Waylon Jennings and Carl Perkins too, they always said, "Man, just keep doing what you do and stay true to your roots." And country music it will always come back around, but all genres of music go in cycles. And you know thanks to John Rich and the movement with the music mafia Big & Rich, I think they kicked the door wide open with Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy) and country music has been riding a very positive wave ever since. And Howard I should turn it over to you here.
Howard T. Owens: No, everything you've said is actually spot on, Billy Ray. Country music has been, you know, from our perspective incredibly vital in building this franchise. Country music radio has been vital for building this franchise over the last five years. This is the longest running cable reality competition show on TV until we transferred - until we made the move to network. So for me, you know country radio was uber supportive as is Nashville and the country music community. People have been so gracious and so open arms. It just so happens we were on cable and now we're on broadcast and now it's going times ten. But it feels like everyone has been so supportive.
John Rich has made comparisons with this show to American Idol. Could you talk about some of those differences and how you think maybe Nashville Star serves country a little bit better than say an American Idol might?
Howard T. Owens: Well I think obviously this is a show about country. And American music about - you know shows - you know I think every one of our contestants sans one plays the guitar and they play a real guitar. It's a real aspect of their musicality and their performance. And I think, you know, we were the first show to play with a live band. If you recall, the first two seasons of American Idol played the track. You know they - in my estimation, they 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 in one season. 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, that's what Billy Ray is believing, and that's what our show is about. Our people are real. Our people are not - you know the contestants this year are not sort of people who necessarily grew up, you know, in the semi-pros of the music industry. Our people are mother - you know one of our contestants is a mother of five. Another of our contestants is, you know, an African-American from the middle of Texas who is a single father of a 6-year-old - of an 8-year-old- girl. We have people who just, you know, 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. And I think, you know, in some ways, it's similar to idol and in other ways, it's a totally different show. When you look at our show, it's going to look in my estimation other than being a talent show, it's a totally different show with a different vibe, and a different energy, and a different, and you know, heart.
Now after the first year or show, you quit showing the auditions and you started straight with - you had your Final 10 or Final 12. Now you were talking about auditioning on a military ship and so forth. Does that mean that you're going to be showing auditions in these early weeks this time?
Howard T. Owens: 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. 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 similar to Season One in fact.
Okay and then the second half of the show were showing us - how many was it, the Final 12 or Final what?
Howard T. Owens: The Final 12 will perform for the first time on stage. And the judges will eliminate one of the Final 12. And the judges will make that decision.
Before the original song was kind of loose, it turned out it didn't have to be - you didn't have to write the song if you could find something that some other people had written that hadn't been published - you could use that. How are you doing that this year with the original song?
Howard T. Owens: The original song this year is going to be the same. So you can source an original song or you can perform an original song. The way - you know what we think is sort of the aspect is it will be made known by the judges or by the show whether you in fact wrote it or whether you found a (natural) songwriter to write it for you. So the audience - the voting viewing audience will know if, you know, Johnny gets up there and sings a tune whether this came from Johnny's mind or whether Johnny was, you know, creative and smart enough to go to the best songwriter in town. A lot of people do that. You know a lot of people in Nashville - you know you've got to pick a song. You've got to have - you have to do it on your own though. You know we'll make introductions and stuff like that, but the person is going to have to select a song with the writer. In years past whether it's been Buddy Jewel, whether it's been Chris Young Drinking Me Lonely, whether it's been Miranda Lambert, those people - all of the winners in general wrote their own songs. So it was in fact - even though people were given the opportunity to go outside, most people 99% of the time have chosen to do - chose to do their own writing.
Given that this show is all about giving, you know, worthy artists that big break, I was wondering who is the pivotal person in helping you early in your career - the person who, you know, most inspired you, or influenced you, or motivated you, or helped you, or saved you, or changed you? Who might that person be and why?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Well there's no doubt and it's been well documented about the letter that Johnny Cash wrote (to me) in the summer of 1992. I was in the middle of the storm of Achy Breaky and for every action, there's an opposite and equal reaction. And there was you know - it was just - there was a lot of stuff circling around that whole - the album was at Number 1 for 17 weeks in a row on Billboard's Top 200, a record which still stands to this day, you know, for a debut artist at 17 weeks. So a lot of things was going on around me. And during the height of the storm, Johnny Cash had (sent) a letter over to my manager's office and it was handwritten from his desk with his letterhead and his writing, and he said some very kind things. And he ended it with, you know, "Always remember to give thanks to Almighty God, for all things that are good come from him." He said, "Let him have it. I'm in your corner." And those words - I'll tell you to this day, I look back at that as that was a pivotal - that was a big moment for me. When Bruce Springsteen was quoted as saying, "Hey everybody, get off his back. It's just a damn good little rock and roll song." That was big stuff for me, you know. I needed to hear that from the people whom I had admired and loved the most and Johnny Cash and Bruce Springsteen were two of them.
Hi, Billy Ray. You do have so much going on between hosting, acting, your own music, managing the biggest act in the world right now, and your own family. How do you balance it all?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Yeah, I'd like to have a real slick answer and say, "Oh, I do this and I do that and I do this," but I'm going to be honest with you because we ain't neither one got time to bull crap each other. It ain't balanced. It's out of balance. It's like you know man I am just getting just as hard as an old man can go, and quite frankly, I'm loving every second of it. I ain't going to complain. I mean I'm - I have some very creative things in my life right now that that's what I have always loved to do and that's what I love to do now. I love to be creative. I'm making an album of a lifetime, which is titled Back to Tennessee. The first single is due any week now. We just shot a video. It's not really the single, but we did this real cool version of Sheryl Crow's Real Gone and we made a video for it two weeks ago and it's starting to air this week. So it's going to come out as kind of like the opening act of the album and then I think perhaps we'll go with - the first single may be the title track Back to Tennessee. But I'm saying all of that to say this. I'm loving making this album right now. I'm loving that creative aspect. I'm loving making The Hannah Montana Movie Montana. It's a great script. I mean I've watched this script develop and it went from good to great. And it's - I'm really loving what we've got going on. I'm loving as a daddy the fact that just a few days ago Miley and I did a scene where I honestly stood back as a professional and go, "My goodness, that little girl can act." Man, it's - she's putting in a heck of a performance and it's a great script. And then the icing on the cake is the gig with Nashville Star and NBC. It's so exciting that it's NBC's first season with the show and this great panel of judges that we've got that's actually just so artistic themselves and a talent in their own right. And then I know that our panel and our contestants are absolutely the cream of the crop. So it's going to be a fun summer.
Howard, my quick question for you is I want to know about the stresses of the show. Like what can the contestants kind of expect? You know what kind of stress can they expect to be under during the time that they're on the show and what should they brace themselves for.
Howard T. Owens: You know I think the stress is that, you know, for some of these kids, some of these people are 16-years-old. They are going to have to be away, you know, in a confined group for a while. Obviously, they are going to have their parents there with them and stuff, but it's going to be, you know, out - you know for whoever it is. For the mother who is not going to be with her five kids, for the - you know for - we have many - we have a few parents on the show. It's basically a hothouse nine-week, you know, gorilla, you know, sort of like attempt to give these people as many skills as possible to show their wares in front of a national TV audience. So I think, you know, this year, you know, they are going to have the ability to work with a choreography, they're going to have the ability to work with a vocal coach. They are going to have the ability to work with a - you know someone to help them, you know, with their instrumentation. They are going to have all these goods with some of the biggest specialists in, you know, the music business, you know, at their disposal. And the question is, you know, how do you use your energy? How do you use your focus? You know and how do you prepare for next Monday night's huge live performance? A lot of it is going to be song selection - you know a lot of it is going to be what song you perform. It's all sort of a work in progress. There will be a lot of stress, but you know there's stress in every element of life. There will also be, you know, elements to cope with that stress. We're not looking, you know, to make people in any way feel miserable. We want this to be an incredibly fun, and life-changing, and life-affirming experience. So I think it's just a balance of, you know, letting people know that they can turn it up and they can utilize everything they have at their disposal. On other hand, making sure people feel comfortable, you know, in their working environments because we know they are going to be away from their family. We know this is going to be tough, so we're going to do all we can to make it just an awesome time, you know. And these people who are coming here all want it so bad that that will just make it all the more great fun for TV.
How much do you devote to home? I mean you have to get home and rest or doing something don't you? Or is it that your motor is always going?
Billy Ray Cyrus: Well, I've got - I've already got it penciled in in April of 2009, I'm going to lay down and sleep.
Nashville Star premieres with new host Billy Ray Cyrus on Monday June 9 at 9:30 PM ET on NBC.