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Published: Sunday, 5/25/2008

At home in Nashville: They may sing rock or pop, but past 'Idol' stars are going country

BY BRIAN DUGGER
BLADE STAFF WRITER

When he's looking for a mental health break, Bo Bice retreats to a porch at his home near Nashville and watches the turkey and deer lazily wander through his yard.

As a rocker in the home of country music, Bice, the runner-up on the fourth season of American Idol, seems to be out of place, but he quickly shoots down that idea.

"There are a lot of people who live here from the rock world. Tom Keifer from Cinderella and I are good friends. We've worked on a couple of projects," Bice says. "This used to be a country-oriented place, but now there are people from rock, pop, everything else, R&B. It's the country nature of Nashville that has people moving here."

Besides Bice, former Idol contestants Carrie Underwood, Kellie Pickler, Diana DeGarmo, Phil Stacey, Josh Gracin, Buckey Covington, Chris Sligh, Mandisa, Scott Savol, and Melinda Doolittle are all currently in Music City USA.

"I think there's just enough of us in Nashville right now that we're not saturating the market too terribly," DeGarmo says. "Everybody that's here is truly talented and deserving to be here. Each of us has our own little niche."

Whether it's because of the laid-back culture, ability to work with some of the best songwriters in the world, or just finding a good fit in the city's music industry, more and more former Idol contestants call Nashville home.

"I'm not sure where we are in Texas, but I do know that we are in Texas," Underwood says with a chuckle in a phone interview.

Idol judge Simon Cowell predicted that the winner of season four would sell more records than any other of the reality show's contestants, and so far, he's on the money.

Underwood, whose June 10 concert at the SeaGate Convention Centre is sold out, has sold more than 7 million copies of her debut album, "Some Hearts," the fastest-selling debut country album in Nielsen SoundScan history. Her career was launched with American Idol, but she cemented herself as a legitimate artist with the release of "Jesus, Take the Wheel," which rocketed to No. 1. She quickly followed that up with chart-toppers "Don't Forget to Remember Me," "Before He Cheats," and "Wasted."

Her second album, "Carnival Ride," was released in October and has already sold more than 2 million copies. In finding songs for that album, Underwood found herself tapping into the musical energy of Nashville.

"This is just a great place to be. The music business is a lot more friendly here, and there are great songwriters. Some people just go to Nashville to write songs," she says. "It's just a good place. Good songwriters, good producers, a good place to live."

Pickler was embraced by America on American Idol's fifth season. She came across as a naive Southern girl, especially when Cowell called her a "minx," leaving Pickler baffled as to what he meant. But America loved her because of her wide smile, good looks, and constant giggles.

She's capitalized on her happy-go-lucky personality to become one of Nashville's rising stars. She's known for her fun-loving song "Red High Heels," but showed she has a serious side when she turned in the most emotional moment at last year's Country Music Association Awards. Through tears in her eyes, she sang "I Wonder," a song that she co-wrote about her mother, who left her as a young child.

Her debut album, "Small Town Girl," was a success, selling more than 79,000 copies during its first week of release in 2006, but Pickler is looking forward to her sophomore album. The first single should be on the radio in a couple of weeks, and the album should be in stores by the end of the summer.

"I know the next album is going to be a huge jump from the first one. The songs are amazing," Pickler says. "It's a combination of everything because I am goofy. The first album was very honest, but I didn't let down every wall. A lot has happened since then."

Being raised in Albemarle, N.C., listening to country music, Nashville was a natural fit for Pickler.

"I had already planned to move to Nashville if it hadn't worked out, but I'm really glad it did."

The Rocker

Bice is hanging out on his couch with his wife and son, watching Sesame Street.

"Yeah, I'm rocking it out, living the party life. Elmo and milk," he says, laughing at how that sounds coming from a guy known as the rocker when he finished runner-up to Underwood.

After having surgeries for a variety of intestinal ailments, he's healthy, and he's feeling good about returning to the Southern rock-style of music he has always loved. After Idol, he signed a deal with RCA and released "The Real Thing," "but that album wasn't me," he says.

Bice expresses the same lament as many Idol contestants. The show is great for launching a career, but it also can pigeonhole you as something you aren't. Bice wanted to sing Southern rock, RCA didn't agree. Now, he's enjoying the freedom of being his own boss. In October, he released "See the Light" off his own label, SugarMoney. It's sold exclusively at Wal-Mart.

"It's a Southern rock album, more like what people saw me do on Idol."

Being an "Alabama boy," there wasn't much chance Bice was going to head to Los Angeles or New York to launch a career.

"I joke with people that [Nashville] is as far west and north as they are going to pull me."

The city's musical talent also allows him to hone his love of writing.

"I'll be out at a studio session, meet someone, hang out, have lunch, grab a beer, and I'll say, 'Hey, we should write.' That's how things happen in Nashville."

The Sailor

Stacey's children are screeching, excitedly trying to get dad's attention as a Realtor shows the family new homes in Hendersonville, Tenn.

Daughter McKayla became well known on season six of American Idol. She was born on the day Stacey auditioned for the show. Stacey also won fans that season for serving his country in the Navy. He was as shocked as anyone that he made it to the final six on the show.

"I was just enjoying the experience, expecting to be eliminated at any time. I never expected to do as well as I did," he says.

Before Idol he had traveled around the world as part of a university choir and also as part of a naval group. It wasn't really a question where Stacey was going to land after the show. Most of his family lives in Hendersonville, near Nashville. His father is the minister at a local church, and his brother is the music director. The show just made the start of his career a lot simpler.

"There are opportunities for all of us [from the show]. We'll be able to perform for the rest of our lives, and there will always be doors open just because of our involvement with American Idol."

It's an exciting time for Stacey. As he looked for houses, he was preparing to release his self-titled debut album through Lyric Street Records. His first single, "If You Didn't Love Me," is currently on the radio.

"I never imagined that I'd be on this level. I never imagined I'd be putting an album out that'd end up in stores. It's been a dream come true."

DeGarmo is feeling sorry for herself. She's gotten word that the second season of John Rich's Gone Country is getting ready to film around town. The show takes famous people from various walks of life, mostly musicians from outside of country music, and tries to turn them into a country artist. The winner gets his or her single produced by Rich, half of the duo Big & Rich.

"I'm like, 'Aw, that's my show,'" she says.

The show was a musical epiphany for DeGarmo. After finishing runner-up to Fantasia Barrino in season three, DeGarmo performed on Broadway and released a pop record through RCA, but she was miserable.

A spot on Gone Country pointed her heart in the direction it should go.

"I just got the Nashville itch. I turned to my mom and said, 'I'm going to Nashville.' That's about how quick the decision was. I loaded up the U-Haul van, hooked the car up to it, and drove up here."

She's been in the studio with Rich, putting together a demo to shop to Nashville label executives. With her background, it's just a matter of time before she lands a deal.

She keeps in touch with a lot of former pals from the show, including Bice and Stacey. It's not a mystery to her why so many of her friends are showing up in Nashville.

"AI itself, the main demographic is middle class, hard-working America, and that is very close to the demographic for country music. Idol is a little broader, but it's a lot of the same people. I meet people all the time who say, 'I saw you on American Idol.' It's an honor that people accept us and are excited about us doing their favorite type of music."

How many more?

It isn't a surprise that musicians are drawn to Nashville. The streets are lined with clubs featuring live music. Writers can find writing partners in bars or homes on any night of the week. If a waitress brings you your food in a local restaurant, there's a good chance she's just biding her time until someone discovers her musical talent.

As DeGarmo says, "Within every six inches, there's someone with musical talent, whether it's an instrumentalist, songwriter, engineer. The city is just buzzing with musical energy."

It's also no surprise why Nashville executives are drawn to the former contestants. The recording industry is hurting, and a former American Idol contestant, performing for upwards of 30 to 40 million television viewers each week, is guaranteed to sell records.

Is there a limit to the number of AI alums that can be absorbed by the Nashville market? Probably not. If country-leaning Kristy Lee Cook or any other of this year's contestants decide to make of go of it in Nashville, that'd be fine with Pickler.

"I'd just tell them to pack your stuff up and come on."

Contact Brian Dugger at:

bdugger@theblade.com.



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