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New Country Singing Competition Offers Fresh Challenges For Hopeful Superstars

Our Country

Music-talent competition shows have never exactly ignored country music ever since the reality phenomenon became popular quite a few years ago. The best-known one of all, American Idol, produced Carrie Underwood--in addition to a respectable roster of other artists who did or are doing just fine in the country world. 'Nuff said.

(And if that ain't 'nuff for ya, there's also the 5 seasons of Nashville Star that aired, first on USA Network, then on NBC.) 

However, those viewers who tuned into CMT's new competition program CMT's Next Superstar for its debut episode last Friday no doubt realized that there's something extra to this particular series. Although it's produced by American Idol's executive producer Nigel Lythgoe (along with his son Simon, also an Idol producer) and follows the familiar voting/elimination methodology, Superstar seeks to truly grill its contestants in all areas of the music biz.

The 10 finalists who were chosen to appear on the show are housed together in a Nashville "music mansion" and will undergo everything from performing to songwriting challenges in a quest to win a record deal from a major Nashville label.

Friday's debut episode jumped right into the fray--after introducing all 10 hopefuls, the first challenge was to give a non-country song a country arrangement, then perform it at the legendary Wildhorse Saloon for an audience...oh, including main judge Matt Serletic, a Grammy-winning songwriter and producer who knows a few things about identifying hit talent; plus guest judges Fred Bronson, who writes for Billboard, and actor/singer Kristin Chenoweth.

The contestants--five men, five women--gave it their all, performing twanged-up versions of everything from Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl" to Otis Redding's "Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay."

The judges weighed in. The audience voted. The bottom two finalists were called forward, told they were at the low end of the list, and were invited to perform a "Sing to Survive" challenge--in which both sang any song they liked for 40 seconds.

And, in true Idol fashion--one ended up going home.

In this case, it was Ben Smith, a 29-year-old Texan who's established a healthy local following playing the bar-and-club circuit, as well as won over his share of viewer fans with his rugged good looks and gentlemanly demeanor. His rendition of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" didn't unduly impress the judges, however--Serletic actually said "We don't need a karaoke star"--and his 40-second "Survival" attempt lost out to fellow bottom-lister Adrienne Beasley.

Every week, we'll be bringing you an exclusive interview with the eliminated finalist from the show. Today, of course, we've got numero uno on the list: Ben Smith, who sat down to answer a few questions about his experience.

Our Country: Well, you are the first eliminated. Someone has to be, but that probably feels like a pretty low blow. What are your thoughts right now?

Ben Smith: It was a learning experience. You know, all success is built on experience. And experience brings failure sometimes. So, it is what it is.

OC: That's a good way of looking at things. Speaking of experience--What do you feel was your most valuable experience from your tenure on the show?

BS: Well, just the connections I made were really great. I met some really great people. Getting in front of a camera is a new experience for me. I'm used to playing little bars and clubs and stuff in Texas, and there's never a camera around. So that was a new experience, and definitely a learning experience.

OC: What were your thoughts on the first challenge?

BS: It may sound simple, but when you get down to the nitty gritty it's more difficult than you might think, the task to make a non-country song legitimately into a country song. We were all blown away at how well [finalist] Wynn Varble did [with Katy Perry's "I Kissed A Girl"]. He took it to a whole new level.

OC: Why did you choose Marvin Gaye to sing? The consensus from the judges seemed to be that it wasn't the right fit for you.

BS: I had chosen a U2 song early on--"Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"--it was on the list of suggested songs. But towards the last minute, I learned we weren't going to get the performing rights cleared for that song. So I had to quickly choose an alternative, and it was "Let's Get It On." So it was a last-minute choice for me, and I was really disappointed I didn't get to do the U2 song. I was going to add harmonica and guitar, and it would have been really cool.

OC: That makes things a lot more clear. It seems you are more suited to a rock song. Given all this, what did you think of Matt Serletic's criticism? He was pretty harsh.

BS: ...It was kind of a low blow.

OC: Especially since I think you totally killed it with your "Sing To Survive" performance.

BS: My "Sing to Survive" song--"Unwound" by George Strait--I felt really good about. I was actually pretty happy to have the opportunity to sing that song. I thought I totally redeemed myself with it, being the situation what it was.

OC: Did you deliberately choose Strait to counteract the Marvin Gaye song? You couldn't really get two more opposite songs if you tried.

BS: I'm just really comfortable with George Strait as an artist, being a Texan myself.

Here's Ben's performance of "Let's Get It On." What do you think?

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A big thanks to Ben for giving us his time. Also, if you are a fan, he did assure me: "I'm definitely going to keep playing music." And when I asked if he intended to pursue it professionally, he proudly replied, "I already have a professional career in music." Indeed--you can hear more of, and also purchase his music at his official site.

Be sure to tune in to the next episode of CMT's Next Superstar, which will air April 15 at 9 p.m. ET/PT on CMT. I'll be talking to the next eliminated finalist and will have a report for you next week!

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