Country Music’s Biggest Talent Contest Enters 20th Year

Country music’s biggest talent contest — The True Value Country Showdown — has just embarked on its 20th year of operation. The nationwide competition has an impressive history of attracting future stars. It numbers among its former contestants Garth Brooks, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Sara Evans, Neal McCoy, Rick Trevino, John Berry, John Michael Montgomery, Sweethearts of the Rodeo and Chad Brock.

The Showdown’s latest national winner is Texas-based Scott Whittaker & The Smoking Guns. At a show taped Nov. 29 at the Grand Ole Opry House for a television and a radio special, Whittaker’s group beat out five other regional champions for the top prize of $50,000. Lorrie Morgan hosted and performed on the show, along with the comedy team of Williams & Ree. Judges for the event included Grand Ole Opry manager Pete Fisher and singer/songwriter Eddy Raven.

The Showdown generates its contestants by working through local radio stations. Each station holds one or more contests to produce local winners who then compete in state finals. State winners move on to six regional contests. From these encounters come the six national finalists.

More than 400 country radio stations in 46 states participated in the 2000 Showdown. Together, the stations attracted approximately 15,000 acts, ranging from solo performers to seven-piece bands. Dean Unkefer, whose Special Promotions Inc. (SPI) in Nashville plans and conducts the Showdown for True Value Hardware, estimates that more than 50,000 aspiring performers took part in this year’s talent sweep.

The continuing popularity of the Showdown, Unkefer contends, is an important but often overlooked measure of country music’s appeal. “Nashville measures the size of country music by the [established] artists’ concert dates and record sales,” he notes. “Nothing could be more short-sighted. . . . Typically, country music fans visit their towns’ honky tonks. They have a bar band and a following [that’s] there Friday and Saturday night every week. That’s where 80 percent of the fans get their exposure to country music — not with the [established] artists, not with the records but with the interaction in those bars. That’s where the Showdown comes in.”

Built-in standards keep the quality of talent high, Unkefer asserts. He notes that contestants cannot use prerecorded music and that they are encouraged to write and perform their own songs for the contest. “It must be live music,” Unkefer stresses. “There’s no karaoke here. We will disqualify anyone using prerecorded music. . . . We’re very strict with that. It helps control the level of talent. Anyone who’s going to go up and play with a band is serious about their talent. . . . At least 40 percent of the music produced on Showdown is original music. When you watch the national finals, almost all the music you hear is original. Some of it’s good and some of it’s real bad. . . . But there’s something to be said for people who stand up and sing their own music.”

Judging standards are the same at every level of competition, and extra points can be awarded to contestants who do original material.

Although radio stations produce all the local contests, SPI sends in its own producers for the state, regional and final rounds. Unkefer says that each year’s Showdown will involve from 600 to 750 separate talent shows, with some radio stations staging as many as 10 such events.

The state-level Showdown has become a regular feature at many state fairs. The package will feature a mid-level country act — such as Trace Adkins or Mark Chesnutt — and the local-contest winners.

“Our shows are inexpensive [for the fairs] and pretty much guaranteed to draw a crowd,” Unkefer says. “Most country music acts are way overpriced. When you talk to the fairs and other venues, [you learn that] it’s only a handful of artists — maybe six — that they’ll rely on to carry a hard-ticket gate. The Showdown, with a mid-level artist tying in to the promotion, will draw crowds — because you’ve got the friends and family [of the contest entrants] and fans. . . . Very seldom will a venue lose money on the show.”

When a state fair buys the Showdown, all the participating radio stations in that state are required to promote the fair for two weeks prior to the show date. “That’s all free, tied to the package,” Unkefer says. “So the fair not only gets the show as the opening act, but it also gets all this [free] advertising.”

The Showdown hires as many as 20 mid-level acts each year to appear with contest winners, Unkefer reports. “All our shows are formatted the same way,” he explains. “A contestant has no more than seven minutes to perform. Therefore, our shows run from an hour to an hour and fifteen minutes long. . . .The hallmark of this program is how tightly these shows are produced. The contest serves as an opening act. Then you have the artist who does a set. Afterwards, all the contestants come back up, and we announce the winner. . . .We have been everywhere — Caesar’s Palace, Disney, Universal, the state fairs, Wheeling Jamboree. The reputation has always been that we have a well-produced, tight show.”

Unkefer has been with the national talent show from its inception in 1981 as the Ray Price Star Search (which was sponsored by Wrangler Jeans). True Value assumed title sponsorship two years later and has since co-sponsored it, at various times, with Dodge Trucks, Jimmy Dean Foods, GMC Trucks and Coca-Cola.

Garth Brooks was a three-time local contestant in Oklahoma. Sara Evans, Rick Trevino, John Berry, Shane Minor, Chad Brock and John Michael Montgomery were all state-contest winners. Martina McBride and Neal McCoy were national finalists. And Sweethearts of the Rodeo took the Showdown’s top prize in 1985.

Unkefer says that each edition of the Showdown follows an 18-month cycle. It begins in September with SPI soliciting radio and television participation and ends a year and a half later when the syndicated Showdown television special begins airing. The latest special will go into syndication this coming March in television markets covering nearly 90 percent of the U.S. population.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to