Shooting country star Young at pivotal point

by Alison Bonaguro
Special to the Tribune

(The Chicago Tribune, Published December 22, 2006


The trouble with reality shows is, they're unreal. What redeems them, is while they're churning out faux-celebs, occasionally a genuine star finds his way to the top.

That's what happened in May, when Chris Young was crowned Nashville Star of 2006. And now he's headed our way, to try out his live act on the crowd on Friday at Joe's Bar in Chicago--which has become a proving ground for young country artists.
  "It's cool how many people know about my music now," Young said. "My show's what I've been doing for years. This just gave me the chance to do it for more people."

Young, 21, left the show with a major-label record deal and a chance to do what he's always wanted to do. On the final night of "Nashville Star," country hitmaker Phil Vassar told Young "You were put on this earth to do this."

Like other artists, Young has been at this music thing since he was a teenager with a band. "We rehearsed in a 10-by-10 foot rental space," said Young. "Even in the dead of summer heat, we'd practice." Later on, he sold self-financed CDs out of the trunk of his car.

His influences are guys most young country fans have never even heard of. In a sea of Kenny Chesneys, not many aspire to be like the late Keith Whitley or Marty Robbins. "On [Young's current single] `Drinkin' Me Lonely,' that whole falsetto thing is me wanting to do that like Marty did," Young said. "No one could do that like he did."

After growing up just outside Nashville, Young headed to Texas to front the house band at the Cowboys Dancehall in Arlington. Marketing director Amy Jo Measles says the crowds always gravitated to Young. "His originals were amazing and his presence on stage was huge," she said.

That stint in Texas became Young's ticket for a shot at the big time. Before the tryouts, a buddy asked him about joining the 20,000 other hopefuls trying out for "Nashville Star." Young claimed he didn't know how to audition, or where to go. "My friend goes, `I bought you a plane ticket,'" said Young. "You leave on Wednesday.'"

But while every past winner has left the show with record deal, TV doesn't have the final call on stardom. Radio does. And there's nothing on the air now from the first three Nashville Stars, Buddy Jewell, Brad Cotter and Erika Jo. But even though Young hasn't been flooding the airwaves here, either, he seems poised to break the chain of short-lived, reality-show fame.

His self-titled album is the highest selling debut by a male country artist in 2006 and it debuted at No. 3 on the Billboard Country chart. He straddles that retro-traditional fence well, leaning just a little to the rowdy side. But he's by no means a country bad-boy. One of his only moral dilemmas on his debut album is how to spend his last $3, on "Beer or Gasoline."

US99 (WUSN 99.5-FM) morning radio personality Lisa Dent thinks Young's die-hard fans could push him up the charts by demanding airplay, saying "I haven't seen that kind of passion since Keith Urban had his first radio hit."

Newbie traits aside, tonight's performance could determine if he'll fade from the spotlight, or use his Joe's gig as a springboard for a full-blown country music career.

"I'm not gonna go away," he said. "I'll keep pounding away until it gets done right."

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