Any aspiring singer will tell you it's hard to stand out in Nashville, a.k.a. Music City USA, where the talent pool is ocean deep. It's even tougher when American Idol is in town. Out of the 4,000 people who showed up at the reality competition show's auditions in downtown Nashville this past weekend, only 30 were called back on Monday to perform for judges Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban. Rolling Stone Country got the chance to speak to Season 14's gatekeepers after the second round of auditions. Here's what we learned:
In Nashville, it's not all country... and it's not all Nashville.
"People travel a long way to come here," says Urban, who also insists he wasn't surprised by the mix of musical genres in Nashville. According to the country superstar's estimation, less than a third of the people who auditioned in his adopted hometown were actually from Nashville.
Scotty McCreery may lose his title as the latest country Idol.
Urban suspects a country-singing Idol star on the horizon — someone who will "at least [make it] in the Top 10, if not higher." When we asked Lopez if she, too, had seen outstanding country talent on her Nashville trip, she responded with an enthusiastic, "Yes, we absolutely have! We saw two yesterday that I feel were real standouts, country music wise." But, as Urban reminds, "We will see how America votes."
No potty mouths allowed.
Best if you come prepared. Hopefully the contestants warmed up their vocal cords at home —signs taped to the bathroom mirrors commanded, "PLEASE NO SINGING IN BATHROOMS."
Nashville is one of the most intimidating places to audition.
"There are so many layers of talent [in Nashville] and they all know it, so I think they feel that they have to try a little bit harder… which is good," says Connick, standing steps from Tootsies Orchid Lounge, where Willie Nelson got his start, and next door to the County Music Hall of Fame and Museum, where musical trailblazers are immortalized. "They all know that this is the heart, where everybody comes from."
However, there was no shortage of confidence among the 30 who made it to the second round of auditions. We saw a self-proclaimed "next J.Lo" dressed in "Jenny From the Block" cargo pants and a six-pack-bearing crop-top. We also met a young musician planning to sing Paul Simon's "Graceland," who proudly proclaimed that his voice is a mix of Tom Waits and Townes Van Zandt.
When the show ends and the debates continue, the judges stay civilized.
The three insist there is no behind-the-scenes drama, despite the playful bickering seen on camera. Lopez reveals that even after the show is over, "they still film everything… and if there's a good little fight, they will put it on. But this group is not the arguing type… except for Harry occasionally." Connick agrees: "We come from different a perspective. We love that and respect each other," he says.
Connick's kids watch American Idol, but he leaves their opinions at home.
"They know I won't listen because I can't listen," the singer reasons. "One of my daughters just loved Emkay (a Season 13 finalist), but that has no barrier ultimately on what I am going to do or say."
Connick and Urban have different definitions of what makes an Idol.
The tough-loving judge, Connick expects his contestants to have "enough skill to be able to put on a great show," even using his colleague as an example: "When you go see to see a Keith Urban show, you know you are going to get a great show every time."
Urban, on the other hand, considers American Idol talent in training… and under incredible pressure. "It's a big thing to walk in front of anybody and sing without a band, no audience, no family... It's just a room full of cameras and lights. That's a big ask," he relates. "Although some come in and are so comfortable, others have an incredible voice but may be a little shy and a little awkward... I don't want to miss that moment where, if there is talent there, it could come out."