Editor's note: The new episode of Gone Country premieres Friday (Feb. 15) at 8 p.m. ET/PT on CMT.
Diana DeGarmo, an American Idol runner-up in 2004, has moved to Nashville. After wrapping the new CMT series, Gone Country, she ultimately accepted what people have been telling her for years -- that she should pursue a career in country music. Just last month, she put down some temporary digs on 13 acres on the outskirts of town.
"I figured if I want to do it, I've got to be here," she says. "So I'm here. I've been living the country life. I had wild turkeys in my carport a couple of days ago, and I about had a heart attack. I have deer in my yard all the time. I had some country history, so I've had a lot of old friends come out of the woodwork and say, 'Finally! You finally came back from the dark side!' It's been fun. I've had lots of really huge writers and producers [contact me], so it's all falling into place."
As a kid, DeGarmo sang country music in the holiday show at Nashville's Opryland Hotel, back when Opryland USA theme park was still open. The following year, she performed at Dollywood. At 16, she auditioned for American Idol and is still the youngest finalist in the show's history. She made it all the way to the season finale when Fantasia narrowly earned the crown.
Nevertheless, DeGarmo scored a record deal with RCA and notched a pop hit with "Dreams." In 2006, she joined the Broadway cast of Hairspray and the touring company of Brooklyn: The Musical. She also started a follow-up album with some pop/R&B musicians in Atlanta, but she says, "It took a detour that I didn't really want to take, so I decided to back out of that."
On Gone Country, the vivacious 20-year-old vies for a chance to have a country single produced by Big & Rich's John Rich. She says the show reignited her creative spark, and she's currently meeting songwriters in Nashville, hoping to build up her catalog. She wants to make a country album, too.
"Sort of like a country pop record, more in the vein of Martina-meets-Faith, with a little Dolly Parton thrown in, just because I've got to," she says. "'Jolene' is my favorite song! I respect her and love her so much."
DeGarmo is also a huge fan of Josh Turner ("His voice gives me chills!") and Carrie Underwood ("All of her music has been so fabulous!"). Being a Georgia native, she's quick to give shout-outs to Jason Aldean, Luke Bryan, Little Big Town and Sugarland.
"I strongly believe, like, 'OK, God, I'm taking the hint," she says. "My mom has been begging me to go back to country -- ever since I did Idol. Even my publicist at RCA, when I was doing pop, said, 'You should do country.' Being my stubborn 16-year-old self, I said, 'I don't want to do country! I want to do what I want to do.' Gosh, now looking back, I'm like, 'Doofus! Doofus! Doofus!'" With a laugh, she adds, "When you're a young person, you've got to figure it out for yourself. But now that I've got the feeling back again, it's nice."
Asked what that feeling is like, she says, "Pop music can get really stressful, and so competitive. People slit each other's throats over anything. When I came back to do Gone Country, I felt that warmth. It was fun, and I genuinely had a great time. I had fun singing the music, and the people ... just the whole community ... is so much more welcoming and a lot warmer than the pop industry."
She is also grateful that her writing collaborators on Gone Country didn't make fun of the show's contestants. DeGarmo took the opportunity seriously, although she had to cook huge meals from scratch and "shovel poo," as she eloquently puts it.
"Also, the thing that impressed me is that country fans are true, and they're diehard, and they will always support you," she says. "I was reading that Alan Jackson is releasing his 17th album, and this is his first album that he's written every song on. That's amazing! Anybody in the pop industry is lucky to have two albums. I tell people, 'I don't want to be a shooting star. I want to be a Milky Way. I want to be a galaxy. I want to have a career that's going to last a long time.' And I feel like things have been leading up to this."