CHICAGO -- Were country fans there? Sure. Was it absolutely mandatory that you love country music? Not at all. But by the end of the hour-long taping of The Oprah Winfrey Show in late March, chances are you were a fan of both Winfrey and her cast of country characters -- Kenny Chesney, Carrie Underwood, Darius Rucker and Sugarland.
During her Stars of Country Music show, which airs Tuesday (April 14), Winfrey deemed country music "the real soul music." And when Oprah says it, it must be so. But before all the real soul music could be heard, there was the issue of finding a way onto the show.
Getting tickets to The Oprah Winfrey Show is not something you take lightly. You cannot buy them. You cannot trade them. Really, the only two ways to make it into that coveted studio audience is to sign up on the show's Web site and be chosen for any random show. Or you can send an e-mail for a last-minute reservation -- like when the site posted the "Calling All Country Fans" alert. But so many people try for so long before they ever get a chance to be on the show. A search of the Oprah.com message board yielded this advice: "I dedicated every day the line was open from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. to strictly calling over and over -- not even any potty breaks!!!! I spent six consecutive hours for two days, then two consecutive hours on the third day and then I got through!!!!!"
Regardless of how people ended up at this studio on the west side of Chicago, everyone was ready and waiting at the check-in time of 7 a.m. People had come from all over Chicago, but a handful had flown in from as far away as Louisiana, Texas and even Trinidad. And as long as this group of about 400 people, mostly women, were waiting on Oprah, nobody seemed to mind the 90 minutes of standing in line.
The dress code was easy enough to follow. "Bright colors work best on camera," said the info sheet. That would explain why the audience was a sea of Kelly green, royal blue, fuchsia and bright purple. And since so many people were there just to be on Oprah, and not necessarily to see the country stars, hardly anyone was decked out in head-to-toe cowboy attire. A few cowboy hats, some nice boots, but nothing too over the top.
When Winfrey came out, so did the "Oprah, Oprah, Oprah" chanting. She worked her way through the fans, high fiving as many hands as she could. But for the country lovers, Chesney working his way up to the stage had to be the thrill of the morning. He hugged almost everyone in his path, keeping one hand on his black cowboy hat so the zealous embraces didn't knock it off. Before settling in to talk with Winfrey, Chesney picked up an acoustic guitar to perform "Down the Road," his latest No. 1 single. Then he did "No Shoes, No Shirt, No Problems." And almost everybody was singing along. Even Underwood, who had a prime spot in the front row.
It may not be like this every time Winfey has a slew of celebs on her show. But for this one, the front row was reserved for her and her guests to take in the music and the conversation. So while Chesney was performing, Underwood, Rucker and Sugarland's Jennifer Nettles and Kristian Bush were right there watching. And when Underwood was singing, Chesney sat back down with the group to watch. And so on. During breaks, they could turn around and chat with the folks behind them. It was all very intimate, maybe even a bit surreal for the people seated right by the stars.
When Chesney and Winfrey did sit down to talk, he told her all about what he does to prepare for taking his life on the road. They even had footage of Chesney's backstage "Vibe Room" that his team creates at every tour stop. But like she always does, Winfrey brought Chesney back to who he really is and coaxed some admissions out of him. He said that he didn't want to be doing sound checks for the next 20 years. He also said, "I was just a kid who wanted a song on the radio. Who thought I'd be playing Oprah on my birthday?" Oprah's responded, "God can dream bigger dreams than you can dream for yourself."
Next up was Underwood in what can only be described as a "ballad dress." Yellow and billowy and short and elegant. Perfect for the sad, sad "Just a Dream" she sang. Her conversation with Winfrey turned to all things girl: shoes, antiques, workouts and dieting. There was even film of Underwood showing her food diary, with a comment about how she gets stickers like she's in kindergarten. The best story, though, was about grocery shopping late at night in sweats and a ponytail. Underwood told Winfrey she's had people actually come up to her and say things like "You look like Carrie Underwood, but why would Carrie Underwood be at Harris Teeter at 11 o'clock at night?"
Clearly, Rucker was honored to be on the show. He told Winfrey that when he committed to taking some time off in December, he marked every day on his calendar with "Darius off ... unless Oprah calls." And she did, and they had a chance to talk about Rucker's music -- new and old. And Rucker had a chance to shine on "It Won't Be Like This for Long."
Sugarland rounded out the set of country stars, getting up on the Oprah stage to rock the crowd with "All I Want to Do." When Nettles and Bush sat down to talk to Winfrey, the conversation turned to Barack Obama. Nettles recounted the story of what it was like meeting him, and how the first thing he'd said to her was, "Nice pipes, girl. Nice pipes."
View photos from The Oprah Winfrey Show taping.