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On the hunt for Arizona's next big country star

Published: Monday, November 21, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 10:11

Martini Ranch, Dryden

Ryan A. Ruiz

Dryden perform at Martini Ranch in Scottsdale. The venue will soon begin the search for talented country musicians.

The days of Johnny Cash and old country are just as over as the melted smiles once displayed in Nashville's Country Music Wax Museum. Enter the new face of country. One that's just a bit more poppy, a la Miranda Lambert or Carrie Underwood, and has traded in small town anthems for chasing the American Dream into big cities.

There's nothing wrong with that transition – 21-year-old Taylor Swift has a moat in one of her apartments and, according to the New Yorker, often rakes in $750,000 from a single concert. So, when done right, country can be a lucrative genre for musicians despite its oft-misunderstood place in popular music.

For being in the Southwest, Phoenix has a rather damp country western following. In an attempt to unearth local country talent, Scottsdale's Martini Ranch has partnered with Virtus Records, Nashville Tracks and KMLE Country to find the "Next Arizona Country Star."

The competition will last about 13 months and is open to solo artists who believe they're the next big country star to come out of Phoenix. Prospective contestants will be asked to upload a video of him or herself performing a song to YouTube before registering through Martini Ranch's website.

Beginning November 23, competitors will get an opportunity to perform one or two songs on-stage at Martini Ranch during country-themed Wednesday nights. From here, the judges will narrow down the competition and the winner will receive a recording deal with local Virtus Records and LA-based Nashville Tracks.

Jay Kereny, who co-founded Vitrus Records with his wife Tifney, is the bass player of Phoenix band Lemon Krayola and has produced within the full spectrum of musical genres, including work by Linkin Park's Chester Bennington (who was Kereny's roommate during the recording of Hybrid Theory). Kereny, who proposed the competition idea to Martini Ranch, will be the judge representing Virtus Records at the live competitions.

"I think we're not going to be looking at anything but talent, an ability to sing, the marketability of how they present themselves [and] how they perform," Kereny said. "Basically, someone who I can present to a radio station […] and have the best shot of them getting further. We can't guarantee they'll become a star but we can present them as such."

Kereny is confident in the growing country music scene and sees this competition as a means to stir up the scene a little and excite local involvement.

The general manager of Martini Ranch, Michael Stravers, agrees there's a huge market around Phoenix for country music, citing the success of country radio stations and from feedback after bringing country bands to Old Town Scottsdale.

"At the Ranch, we support a lot of local music and we host a lot of up-and-coming bands or bands that were bigger in the past and are on their way down," Stravers said. "We catch that a lot as a 500-seat venue. It's kind of a cool place to foster this kind of local music scene […] and this is a way for us to give back a little bit and maybe become that spot regionally where we're known to launch acts out of this place."

The winner of the competition will also get to open for a national country artist or band booked at Martini Ranch and will perform alongside the local country cover group Daisy Train that plays every Wednesday at Martini Ranch.

Daisy Train guitarist Josh, aka Dallas Longhorn, covers some of the biggest country hits and was able to give perspective on what makes a star-studded country song and "star."

"It's definitely about the melody and hook," he said of country music. "It has to be something people remember; new country is more pop-based. […] There seems to be a lot more lyrics telling a story in country music than some of the pop."

As for what makes for star quality, he shied away from glamorizing country artists.

"I've noticed a lot of songwriters and people who like country music are just normal, regular people," he said. "There's not a whole bunch of uppityness in that world. They're just down-home, good people and everybody gets along. […] There are some definite talents here that are just a step away from making it."

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