Cattle Call

They started coming on Sunday night, even though they weren't supposed to start lining up until noon Monday, bringing with them tents, coolers, umbrellas, sleeping bags, air mattresses and dreams of being the next Kelly Clarkson or Ruben Studdard. They came from all over -- from tiny towns in the Rio Grande Valley to sunbaked burgs in the Colorado plains. Oklahomans and Louisianans seemed especially thick on the ground. By Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 2,500 starry-eyed hopefuls and another 3,000 or so friends and family sitting in the stands at Minute Maid Park or camped out in a maze of steel pens outside.

The area around the stadium's east side looked like a day at the beach, with asphalt taking the place of sand and the racket of traffic on the nearby Highway 59 viaduct taking the place of crashing waves. About 3,000 people had been allowed to camp in the stadium, with the 2,000 or so other would-be pop stars pitching bargain-basement tents in the parking lot. This gaudy tent city was augmented by the blooming oleanders nearby -- unnaturally fluorescent color abounded. In fact, as one local wag put it, it looked like a Wal-Mart had exploded outside Minute Maid Park.

Oddly, there was a shortage of things for the waiting contestants to do. Subway set up a booth, at which bored contestants could win prizes by throwing little footballs into the waistband of Jared's big blue jeans. KRBE (104.1) set up an adjacent booth, from which it blasted the milling thousands with the strains of Uncle Kracker's eminently non-essential remake of Dobie Gray's "Drift Away."

And as it happened, a few of the contestants did just that. Not all of them were content to sit in the parking lot or in the stadium, baking like Mom's apple pie. A few less-wholesome sorts wandered across the street to B.U.S., a cavernous sports bar that normally earns its crust slaking the thirst of rowdy Astros fans. (What was this bar's owner thinking? He's got thousands of wannabe singers, probably half of them of legal drinking age, camping on his doorstep for three days, and it doesn't occur to him to have a karaoke night?) In the far back corner of the bar, a few contestants were knocking back longnecks and sucking down Marlboro Lights at a fairly good clip.

There was Jessie Rasinger and her sister Kelly Bragg, natives of the tiny northeast Texas town of Seagoville, where they grew up on a bull-breeding ranch. Rasinger said she entered to carry on her father's stalled singing career. "My dad was doing the whole singing thing but the guy who was paying for it passed away, so I felt it was my job to finish what he started," she says, and adds that the success of Joshua Gracin last season was an inspiration. "He was country, and he made the top ten, but if this doesn't work out I'll try Nashville Star."

Bragg had intended only to drive Rasinger to the event but decided to enter somewhere along the way. "I'm 21 years old and I'm married and I have two kids, and I just wanted to flee!" she says.

Then there's Jay Calderon, a native of Brownsville and a long-time resident of Houston. Calderon is immaculately dressed, and is seated with a male companion who is not a contestant. Calderon got started young -- singing mariachi songs in Mexican restaurants in the Rio Grande Valley and in Houston. "I want to do this because it's my only opportunity," he says. "It's my last chance -- I'm 24." (American Idol contestants have to be between the age of 16 and 24.) "If I don't do okay here I'm gonna go on that show Fame," he adds.

Someone points out that he would have to dance on that show.

"Naw, I can dance, honey, I can dance," Calderon says, laughing and snapping his fingers and waving one arm at his side.

Dennee' Dimiceli and Brian Murphy round out the contestants at the table. Like Calderon, Dimiceli is hearing the ticking of the "Idological clock" -- she's also 24. "This is my last excuse to get famous," she says. Murphy's a medallion-wearing guy with frosted, spiky hair from California on his second try at this brass ring. Last year he competed in Los Angeles.

"We're sitting back here because none of us wanted to sing in front of everybody else," says Rasinger. "We decided we would critique each other." But it seemed they had richer quarry to carve up right about now, namely the producers of this clusterfuck of an audition.

"You stay over there so long, you just have to get away," snarls Dimiceli. She's an alluring brunette with a degree in fashion, and, by her own admission, expensive tastes to match. She's also the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher who is now an organic farmer just outside town, not to mention cousins with Eddie Vedder. "The American Idol people are so mean. They are so rude. They treat all of us like we are animals!"

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John Nova Lomax
Contact: John Nova Lomax