This past weekend in Austin, Texas, if you weren't at South By Southwest--you were probably hanging out at the Rodeo Austin, enjoying the fair, music, BBQ, and brave folks risking life and limb on the backs of two-ton animals.
And, of course, watching the Rodeo's "Battle Of The Bands" competition--a contest sponsored by Ram Trucks in search of finding the next new hot name in country music. (You may have read my interviews with the two finalist competitors here and here.)
So, wondering who won?
Well, I was there, I was one of the judges and helped determine the champion, and it was a hard decision. But before I get into all of that, let me take you on a little recap of Ram's Rodeo Austin weekend.
Saturday was spent at the Rodeo's fairgrounds, where I and my fellow Ram judges got to meet and hang out with the two finalists, Justine Blazer and the Natalie Turgeon Band. Let me tell you, there's no better icebreaker than a bit of old-fashioned BBQ, some nice loud live country music, and perhaps a Shiner Bock or two. But on that note, the Battle finalists couldn't be nicer people (in addition to being spot-on musicians), so this was probably the most fun part of the weekend!
Well...unless you want to count my test-drive in a Ram Truck, which I also admit was a pretty good time. This was my first time handling a BIG truck--hey, I'm just a gal from Los Angeles, folks. I was a little worried I'd run this very nice and brand-new truck into the livestock show (it's got awesome pickup), but I managed just fine. And am now seriously considering trading in my little compact for a Longhorn!
Saturday night was spent watching--what else--real, live, honest-to-God rodeo. Did you all know that a prize bull gets more time off between rounds in the ring than Tim Lincecum got between games at the World Series? Just one of the things I learned while checking out the show and questioning the experts (who were very patient with my ignorance).
Rodeo Austin is known for not only, well, rodeo--but also top-notch musical entertainment. After all the cowboys and livestock were ushered out, the lights dimmed--and one of the currently most-hip names in Nashville, the Band Perry, rolled out on a rotating stage and gave a fired-up hourlong set. (In fact, in a funny anecdote, Ram Battle finalist Justine Blazer related that she'd ran into the brothers-and-sister team just that morning, working out in our hotel's gym.)
So, that was a good night, to say the least. The next morning, however, led us into serious preparation for the big Battle contest. While the artists got to work setting up on the outdoor stage, I got comfortable with my three other fellow judges.
That's me (on the left, natch) with judge Dixon Beasley, who handles Chrysler's field operations for the Southwest. We were instructed to judge the bands using three main criteria: Originality and quality of their lyrics, ditto music composition, and the overall impression they made on us. We took it seriously! In fact, I believe Dixon and I are discussing the exact breakdown of scoring in this very photo.
The two competitors flipped a coin to see who'd perform for the crowd first. The Natalie Turgeon Band won that toss, and they took the stage to perform their country-rock original "Country-ish."
Frontwoman Natalie Turgeon can be summed up pretty neatly in one phrase: The girl has a voice. Hanging out with her before the show, she seemed like a sweet and mellow young lady--the kind of girl who'd be your most trustworthy friend in high school. But when she hit the stage, her remarkably powerful vocal talent rocked that entire image. It's not easy to do country, and it's not easy to rock out (well...okay, it's easy to rock out, but not easy to do it properly). Natalie mixed both seamlessly and instantly morphed into one badass chick--that can really sing--on that stage.
Following the Natalie Turgeon Band was singer Justine Blazer and her crew. Justine's a seasoned performer who's been on stage in some form or another since she was a little kid, and this showed in the ease with which she engaged the crowd. Delivering a smoky-voiced rendition of her single "New Country Beat," she circled the outdoor field and sang directly to the audience before leaping onstage to wrap up the tune.
Phew! This gal's a showstopper!
It was pretty difficult for me and the other Ram judges to come to a consensus on who should win. Natalie had that voice that couldn't be denied. Justine had the je ne sais quoi that put the audience in her blue-jeaned pocket.
In the end...after discussion and very meticulously tabulating our numeric scores, it was an honest close call.
However, it was Justine Blazer who took home the grand $5000 prize and the Ram championship title. Congrats, Justine and band!
The Natalie Turgeon Band didn't go home empty-handed, either. They got the second-place prize of $2500 to sweeten their trip back home. "Now if only I could keep all of this myself," Natalie joked to me, but seeing as she actually has her father-in-law-to-be as her guitar player (true story! She's marrying his son this June!) I'm guessing that ain't gonna happen.
All in all, the Battle Of The Bands was a blast--perfect setting, great weekend of entertainment, and terrific talent that I had the honor to help judge. Now that I've taken you through the entire contest, I'm sure you're eager to see the winner in action. Here's Justine Blazer's video for "New Country Beat." Be sure to let me know what you think of this new rising star, okay?
As always, be sure to: