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From armchair judge to the real deal

WALKER — I didn’t have a fancy button to push or a big red chair that spun around but I did have a great experience as a judge Saturday at the Texaco Country Showdown talent contest at Northern Lights Casino in Walker.

I’m a huge fan of all things music and reality TV. I’ve never missed an episode of “American Idol” (bad audition shows and all) or “The Voice.” Based on auditions alone, I knew Carrie Underwood would go far in country music. She had the look and the voice. She was the complete package. I also knew Chris Daughtry, who was eliminated in Round 5 of his season, would be successful. Even though I didn’t see those performers live, their star quality came through the television screen and made me a fan immediately.

OK. I’ll admit it. I’m an armchair judge. I sit in my recliner in my living room in southeast Brainerd and I critique voices, song selections and stage presence of those seeking to make it big on a talent show. So when I was asked to be a judge for the Texaco Country Showdown, I jumped at the chance.

According to the website, the Texaco Country Showdown is America’s largest country music talent show. It’s designed to find the most promising country music talent in the nation and to give performers a chance to launch their professional music careers. The Country Showdown begins each spring with over 450 local talent contests sponsored by country music radio stations throughout the United States. Winners advance to their respective state competitions held at leading fairs and venues. Acts then compete for a $1,000 prize, the state title and the opportunity to advance to one of five regional finals. It’s the last step before the televised national final which will be in January at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Past winners of this long-running contest include Martina McBride, Garth Brooks, Miranda Lambert, Neal McCoy, Sara Evans, Brad Paisley and Billy Ray Cyrus.

There were nine contestants competing for the all-expense paid trip to Nashville for a chance to win $100,000 and the title of “Best New Act in Country Music.” They were Kianna and Katlin Knutson representing North/South Dakota; Steve River Band, Michigan; Kimberly Montgomery, Illinois; Buck’d Off, Nebraska; Courtney Guns, Minnesota; Zac Matthews, Wisconsin; Ashley Lusk, north Missouri; Nicole Knight, south Missouri; and Maddie Poppe, Iowa.

There were four judges including myself. We were given a scoring system to use. The contestants were judged on overall talent, marketability in country music, vocal/instrumental ability, originality of performance, stage presence/charisma and song writing, which was optional. Each contestant could score a maximum of 10 points in each category with the exception of the song writing category, which was three points.

At the end of the contest, we tallied our scores to determine the winner. Three of the four judges had Zac Matthews as the top scorer.

Seventeen-year-old Matthews performed two original songs, “Country Boys Roll” and “Drink All Night.” He lit up the stage with his charisma, stage presence, great vocals and masterful guitar playing. I couldn’t help but tap my foot to the catchy upbeat tunes. His enthusiasm and love for what he does definitely filtered out into the audience. They were having just as much fun as he was.

For me, only one point separated Matthews from my second place scorer, 15-year-old Maddie Poppe. She performed “Me and Bobby McGee,” and an original song called “Little Miss Perfect,” which was very well written and age-appropriate. She even experienced a technical glitch during her first song — a short in her guitar cord, creating a distracting crackle every few chords — but she never lost her composure. For such a young vocalist, I was extremely impressed by that.

At night’s end, the nervous contestants lined up on the stage, awaiting the announcement of the winner. I watched them all, but in particular, my eyes were focused on Matthews. He stood patiently, hands folded in front of him. I couldn’t help but smile. I was one of only a handful of people who knew who the winner was, and that his life was about to change just a little bit more.

And then, after a dramatic pause with “And the winner is,” the emcee exclaimed, “Zac Matthews!” Matthews’ hands went to his face in what seemed like total shock. The audience, including several of his family members and friends, erupted with cheers and clapping.

As if on cue yet in a true winner’s fashion, Matthews walked across the stage and shook each of his competitors’ hands. What an impressive thing to see from a 17-year-old, especially in this day and age.

So, if Zac Matthews hits it big in Nashville, I’ll be able to say I had a very small part in getting him there.

But for now, I’ll just go back to armchair judging. I just wish I had Adam Levine or Blake Shelton sitting next to me.

DeLYNN HOWARD may be reached at 855-5850 or