Once upon a time, a star in Nashville was a great big glittery thing. A thang, to be precise, that meant block-long Cadillacs in custom colors with the horns of bulls mounted on the front and your Big Name painted on the side. It meant garish rhinestoned nudie outfits. Most of all, it meant good music — real music — that thwacked and twanged and carried distinctive voices straight from the heart. Those voices broke and cried and sang of times good and bad, the universal human condition of The Hurtin’.

These days, a Nashville Star is a generic item featuring backward baseball caps, T-shirts and jeans and sterile, too-trained voices that belt out bland, uniform music — essentially bad pop-rock with a pedal steel thrown in to let you know that, hell yes, this is country music.

In fact, a Nashville Star has been reduced to something you allegedly get to be on a TV show of that name, yet another network notion of entertainment where viewers watch the freak show of people trying to get to be something — a millionaire, an idol or the biggest loser. Which is exactly what has attracted 700 hopefuls to an open-casting invitation at the Marriott Hotel in North Hollywood to fill the sixth season of the seductive NBC cattle call.

By 10:00 a.m., the line snakes around the building like a Disney ride, a line filled with foxy blonds who look like news anchors, guys whose fashion ideas seem to be derived from Criss Angel, goth types sweating through black clothing, people in wheelchairs, a blind man with a Seeing Eye dog, and a drag queen in a towering Wynette wig. But few are the Western outfits, scant are the ten-gallon hats.

“In L.A. they’re actors, in Chicago they’re DJs, in Nashville they’re pretty much singers,” confides a production manager about the participants from the three audition cities. Some hold guitars, some vocalize, lines about Jesus and drinking waft in and out.

Veno and his brother Michael are hard to miss. They’re both covered in tattoos, Veno has a lip ring the size of a large washer, Michael sports a Mohawk and a high-caliber bullet around his neck and is shoveling Panda Express into his mouth. He’s here to support Veno, a singer currently residing in his ’96 Dodge Ram van.

“I drove it out here from Ohio six months ago and it was a hell of a trip,” he says. “I blew my life savings, it was like $1,000. I don’t really remember what we spent it on. Beer, I guess.”

Veno has a “hard rock” band called Dazend that sounds like “Days Inn” when he says it, but assures me that he’s “a big country fan.” Contestants, he says, can sing a cover from an approved song list and an original. “So I’m doing ‘Proud Mary’ from Creedence,” he reveals, “and one of my lighter originals. It’s called ‘Scream.’ It’s about an ex-relationship where you don’t want to call her but you have no one else to talk to so you call her just to hear her scream back at you. It’s pretty interesting.”

Farther up the line is willowy Julann, a fan of Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton.

“I have a strong desire to connect with people on a much higher scale, and I think through music we do that,” she gushes as her Farrah-like hair catches the breeze. “I want to inspire and bring joy to the world a little more than what I’m already doing. It’s not about the money.”

Apparently that part has been taken care of for lucky Julann, who points out “my Tiffany necklace, Juicy Couture shirt, my True Religions, and my snakeskin boots I got on Sunset. My dark glasses are Versace, and I have the Ferragamo bag, and the David Yurman ring. I’m all dolled up, and this is the best thing” — she lifts her wrist — “my diamond Rolex.”

Nashville Star officials won’t allow reporters into the actual auditions, but in the crowded “holding room,” the cameras catch singers as they emerge, triumphant or shamed. Either way, producers goad them into big reactions. The doors burst open to a woman’s painful scream.

“I did a fantastic job singing ‘Proud Mary’!” bellows Christy Eidson, a fireplug in a thrift-store dress, kind of an angry Minnie Pearl. “Evidently they did not agree and they asked me to leave. But that’s all right. I guess they were just looking for something else, like blond or pretty or vocally talented!”

Outside, a big man with a deep baritone waits his turn. Michael Austin runs the third largest berry farm in Missouri. He says he loves classic country and he’s “livin’ the dream.”

What, I wonder, would Hank Williams say about all this?

Austin looks around, pushes his cap back and speaks his mind.

“I think Hank would be rolling over in his grave.”

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