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A Nashville Star Is Born

Former Richmond Strip denizen Sheila Marshall makes it all the way to Music City

Well, as a city we sure blew it when American Idol came to town. When our local citizens weren't regaling Randy, Paula and Simon with the worst singing this side of a Tokyo karaoke bar on Bottomless Sake Night, they were dousing Simon with ice water and bringing about lightning bolts and crashing thunder through their own malevolent free will.

"Appalling" was Simon Cowell's clipped verdict. "Really appalling. I've never seen it this bad."

But we're doing a little better on Nashville Star, USA Network's American Idol country cousin. In January, it was announced that out of 15,000 contestants culled from a national search, Nacogdoches-born former Houstonian Sheila Marshall made the final 20. On March 6, the night the second season of the show debuted on the air, the 31-year-old Marshall survived the cut from 20 to ten. Ever since, she has been sequestered in a house in Nashville's tony Hillsboro Village area with the other nine contestants.

"Fun and hectic" is how the brown-eyed brunette (who bears a passing resemblance to Martina McBride) describes life with the nine people who would walk on their grandmothers' graves to beat her out in the competition.

The pressure's pretty huge. Like Idol, the winner walks away a bona fide star. Buddy Jewell, who won last season, has already sold half a million records.

But unlike Idol, Nashville Star looks and sounds like a Saturday night out on the town. The studio audience is as rowdy as any honky-tonk crowd, if a little bit too pep-rally chipper for the real deal. Contestants can play instruments if they choose, or use their own material on certain nights, and they're always backed by a band. Marshall says performing on the show is a mixed bag. "I guess it's a little nerve-racking. It's fun playin' for the crowd, but you're being judged. That part's not fun."

Two of last year's judges -- Nashville author-journalist Robert K. Oermann and Charlie Robison -- have been replaced by veteran disc jockey Billy Greenwood and performing artists the Warren Brothers. Sony Music Nashville's Senior Director of A&R and Artist Development Tracy Gershon is the only holdover.

"They've all been pretty nice to me so far," says Marshall, of the panel. "They've been pretty harsh on some people." (Well, they were pretty nice until last Saturday when Gershon bluntly opined that Marshall didn't have what it takes.)

Marshall's pretty harsh herself when it comes to the people she has already beaten out. She says the early rounds of the competition were tough on the ears. "There were about 300 people in Austin tryin' out, and some of them had never sang before in their life," she says. "It was an all-day ordeal."

But she offers nothing but praise for those who remain. When asked if there is one competitor she's especially nervous about, Marshall says, "All of 'em. Everyone's really good. I was surprised at how good the talent was this year, compared to last year. It's really gone up a notch."

Among the contestants are some pretty odd ducks. There's spiky-haired Mal Rodgers -- the pride of County Antrim, Northern Ireland -- who calls himself "an Irish mixture of Garth Brooks and Bono." And there's also San Angelo-bred Gregory DeLang, who is, well, a woman. "I'd rather be a girl named Greg than a boy named Sue," she likes to say. (DeLang was eliminated Saturday.)

Marshall sang her own song, "This Is Goodbye," to make it to the final ten, but the March 13 episode found her singing Charly McClain's 1980 smash, "Who's Cheatin' Who." This weekend, she'll be singing an as-yet-unspecified "lovin' heartache song"; after that, should she make it that far, she'll get to sing another of her own compositions.

Marshall wrote many of those songs while living here in the mid- and late '90s. After studying music at college in Lufkin, Marshall moved here, where she caught the ear of local cover band booker-promoter Dennis Lange, a.k.a. "the King of the Richmond Strip." After gigging locally and touring as far away as Japan and Hawaii, Marshall oddly enough got her closest thing to a big break through her side gig as an actress. According to her Web site, she was once cast as a prostitute in a television movie opposite the Long-Tongued One, Gene Simmons of KISS. About a year ago, Marshall moved to Austin, though she still gigs here regularly, and Lange remains her booking agent.

Which brings up an interesting endnote. Six years ago, Lange preposterously told the Press's justifiably skeptical Hobart Rowland that Marshall was going to be the first of six original acts he was going to break in the next eight months. It sure as hell didn't happen that way, for Marshall or the other bands. Perhaps he meant he was going to break one act every six years, but even if that is what he meant, it's a hell of a lot more than most of us could say, and his dedication even calls to mind one of those songs every one of Lange's rock cover bands must know in their sleep. I speak, of course, of Journey, and the song is "Don't Stop Believin'."

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