A Nashville Star Is Born

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Two of last year's judges -- Nashville author-journalist Robert K. Oermann and Charlie Robison -- have been replaced by veteran disc jockey Billy Greenwood and performing artists the Warren Brothers.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'."

Random Nashville Star Trivia

Kathleen McClellan, one of last season's hosts, is perhaps best known as Jerry's "naked girlfriend" on Seinfeld...Judge Tracy Gershon is the sister of actress Gina Gershon (Showgirls, The Player, One Tough Cop)...Houston's own Clint Black served as "contestants' mentor" on season one, and later produced winner Buddy Jewell's self-titled debut album...First season judge Charlie Robison was born in Houston, though he has called Bandera home since he was a pup.

A Bone for the Boneman

For some, the music scene is just a phase. Once they hit 30 they're gone -- they've gotten jobs and settled down to a life of TV and PTA meetings. Then there are the lifers. Bill Gonce, a.k.a. "the Boneman," who passed away last Tuesday at the age of 46, was a rock n' roll lifer.

You might not have known him personally, but night in and night out, Gonce was on the scene. For over 20 years, Gonce wrote a monthly column in Texas Music News, a run that perhaps made him the longest-serving rock journalist in Houston history.

Perhaps "journalist" isn't the correct term, for he was both something less than that and something more. It was less important for Gonce to disseminate a scoop than it was for him to lift the spirits of the musicians around him whom he admired -- mainly by trying to get all of their names in the paper every month. They were his family -- he was much too deeply involved with the scene and attached to the people in it to ever do the dirty work that is sometimes necessary. "He lived and worked with the musicians that he loved," says Texas Music News colleague Guy Schwartz. "He was in the same places, and he was just as hard-core a rock and roller as any of them, in every way of the word. He was out there every night."

A blond-haired, bearded bear of a man who favored denim overalls, Gonce had a gruff exterior that concealed a gentle giant within. One local rocker recalled to Schwartz that when she was 16 and hanging out on the scene, Gonce would demand to see her report card every six weeks and would let her hang only if she maintained straight A's. Schwartz also recalls that when his son Levon joined the Cub Scouts, Gonce presented him with his badges from his own scouting days. Schwartz was impressed to learn that among them was one for Eagle Scout.

Gonce's shoes were mighty big -- in every sense of the word -- and will be very hard to fill.

Scuttlebutt Caboose

Since the shutdown of Rockefeller's, and ever since Garden in the Heights went into limbo, there's been a gaping hole in the midsize-venue department, one that the 610 Arena on the southeast side can't fill alone. Consider that void filled. On April 1, the 15,600-square-foot Houston City Live will open in Northwest Mall in the space formerly occupied by the Longhorn Saloon. Southern rock stalwarts the Marshall Tucker Band will captain the venue's maiden voyage, and after that the venue has an eclectic April passenger manifest of smooth jazz/jazz-fusion (Spyro Gyra, Larry Carlton, Hiroshima), blues and blues-rock (John Mayall, Jimmie Vaughan), and if all you ever wanted to do was love Chaka Khan, they feel for you. The lady herself will be there on April 9. Ronnie Milsap, Little Feat and Strunz and Farah round out April's bill. In August, Tower of Power will blast the walls with their big band blues, and October finds country greats of the easy-on-the-ears variety (Don Williams) and the simply legendary (Merle Haggard). Tickets are available at 713-956-5483.

Houston City Live is booked by Rockefeller's veteran Don Gomez. The venue will offer three kinds of seats: general admission (1,600), theater (1,200) and cabaret (908).

I've written one and a half features about Calexico over the last three years and somehow never got around to what drew me to them in the first place. That would be the drumming of John Convertino. There's nothing flashy or showy about it; instead, it's the epitome of tasteful musicianship. The snares snap, the toms thunk, and the cymbals hiss and crash just the way they should. Most drummers are worthy butts to all the jokes "real" musicians tell about their breed. Not Convertino. Find out for yourself March 20 at Fat Cat's, when Calexico comes back to town.


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