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NASHVILLE (Billboard) - The idea of bringing together strange bedfellows to entertain the masses is as old as "Gilligan's Island" and "The Gong Show."
More recently, the concept has been effectively demonstrated by ABC's "Dancing With the Stars," among a never-ending string of reality shows.
The latest mashup is CMT's "Gone Country," which brings together '80s R&B star Bobby Brown, former "American Idol" contestant Diana DeGarmo, Latin artist Julio Iglesias Jr., "Brady Bunch" principal Maureen McCormick, R&B artist Sisqo, Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider and singer/TV personality Carnie Wilson in a contest that nets the winner a country single release.
The ringmaster/pot stirrer/maestro/taskmaster for the show, which debuts January 25 on the network, is Big & Rich's John Rich.
Filmed in late October, "Gone Country" finds the contestants living together in the Plowboy Mansion, the 27,000-square-foot home north of Nashville co-owned by the Muzik Mafia, a genre-bending creative trust whose members include Rich, musical partner Big Kenny Alphin, Gretchen Wilson and Cowboy Troy.
While such shows as Fox's "American Idol" rely on their audience to pick a winner (albeit with entertaining judges to ostensibly guide them), "Gone Country" is more akin to NBC's "The Apprentice" in that the only person contestants need to impress is Rich. In the first episode, he arrives on the front lawn of the mansion in a helicopter, bedecked in a full-length fur coat.
During a subsequent down-home Southern dinner, Rich explains to the housemates their challenge: Each will have to compose an original country song with the help of Music Row's finest songwriters and perform it in front of a live Nashville audience.
The show provides plenty of tears (mostly from McCormick), testosterone-fueled tiffs (Snider, Rich), down-home humor (there's a toilet-seat-tossing contest) and, most important, music.
"There is some funny stuff in the show," Rich said before driving home the Nashville adage that it all begins with a song. "You have to sit down and create something from nothing, and everything springs out of that. That's what makes country music different than all the other genres."
With that in mind, Rich handicapped the seven contestants vying for the prize:
"His biggest strength is that he is Bobby Brown, and his biggest weakness is that he is Bobby Brown. He is his own worst enemy, but when he is just being a regular guy, what a great dude. He really understands a lot about music. He's a really, really good songwriter. He really knows how to work a crowd. He is still a superstar. He has that gear."
"As a kid she was really into country, but then she kind of got disillusioned with it and went pop. That's when she did 'American Idol.' She put out a couple of pop singles and they did OK, but it just really wasn't something she could sell because that's really not her deal. For her, the biggest challenge was connecting back to country music. She wrote a really, really good song, but she sang it like Christina Aguilera. Those vocal calisthenics don't necessarily work in country music, so she has got to retool her approach a little bit. It's hard to find any flaws in what she does other than that."
"His only weakness is the language barrier, and I am not sure that is so much of a weakness, really. He doesn't know a lot about country as far as modern country, (but) he knows a lot about old country because of his dad. We have been looking for a (way) to bridge that gap between the Hispanic community and country music for forever. We could really use a couple of artists that speak their language and speak our language and bridge the two together. If he wanted to stick with it and take a serious run at it, he could do something."
"She's just not a great singer, but as a person she has an incredible story. We all grew up watching her -- she is part of our DNA. She's really an emotional kind of person. She is either laughing at the top of her lungs or balling her eyes out, which makes her a bit of a train wreck on some things, but when it came to writing songs, I felt like her vulnerability (was a plus). She wrote the best song of anybody on the entire show, 'That's the Price I Gotta Pay for Being Me.' It just killed me."
"He's a really good singer, knows how to write a hit song and is a really good record producer. It's going to be really hard for him to overcome the whole hip-hop thing. He is so urban in his delivery. He always does dance moves (and) things that are so alien to country music. I am not sure the audience is going to let that go. Can he keep his identity and lose some of the juke-and-jive a little bit?"
"His opinion of country music was so antiquated. He didn't realize that there is music out there now that rocks harder than what he was doing. But he went to a Muzik Mafia show and saw the level of intensity, saw me perform a couple of times and started digging into the music further. His respect level came full circle by the time we hit the end of the show. His biggest strength was that he is extremely charismatic and has the 'I don't give a damn' attitude."
"Carnie just grew up around such great music. She understands harmony, she understands how music works. Some of the Wilson Phillips stuff I thought was some of the greatest pop music we had at that period of time. It was real melodies, real lyrics. Her weakness is she has never been a frontperson. She's always singing harmony. To win this show, you have to be able to step up and control an audience and take over the stage. That was one of the things she really struggled with."