Blake Shelton, Keith Urban and Trace Adkins: The Country-Reality Explosion

If you happened to turn on your television in prime time during the week of April 1, the odds were favorable that you were going to at least flip past a country star on your flat-screen. 

Monday and Tuesday had Blake Shelton on The Voice and Wynonna Judd and Kellie Pickler on Dancing With the Stars; Wednesday and Thursday belonged to Keith Urban on American Idol; and Sunday found Trace Adkins working hard on All-Star Celebrity Apprentice

Apparently, television suits are learning what Music Row execs, radio DJs, music journalists and, of course, country fans already knew: Country music and its personalities make for good TV. Priding themselves on their what-you-see-is-what-you-get image, Nashville’s stars are a breath of fresh air in the often-contrived world of reality programming. And clearly they’re connecting with viewers, both those who listen to country and those who do not.

TV Guide Magazine senior writer Damian Holbrook agrees with that assessment.

“Country stars and reality TV go together like saving a horse and riding a cowboy. Not only do they tend to have massive fan bases, which are desirable to both producers and advertisers, they come off as more down-to-earth and harder working than pop or hip-hop acts who benefit from Auto-Tune and production trickery. That makes them likable and accessible . . . the perfect ingredients for reality-show heroes,” Damian explains.

He also says that artists like Blake, Kellie and Keith have a certain universal appeal.

“Another asset country stars bring with them is a cross-demographic sexiness: the accents, the tight jeans, the boots,” Damian says. “These things are universally hot, whether the viewer lives in SoHo or Southern California.”

For the artists themselves, television allows them the opportunity to get off the farm, so to speak, and display a different facet of their personality or even a hidden skill set.

Wynonna, who competed on this season of Dancing With the Stars until her Week 3 elimination, says her appearance on the dance floor was exhilarating.

“I approached this like the day I bungee-jumped, and I am not exaggerating. I closed my eyes and just jumped,” says Wy. “I had no idea what to expect.”

Fellow DWTS contestant Chuck Wicks, who hoofed it on the series in 2009 and released his new EP, Rough, earlier this month, says the uncertainty of the competition was nerve-racking.

“I was never comfortable on Dancing With the Stars, mostly because of the outfits, but emotionally as well. I was nervous the whole time,” remarks Chuck, who nonetheless admits to enjoying the experience.

“I had a great time. I got to hang out with Lil’ Kim and Denise Richards. It was actually cool to see all these big personalities out of their comfort zone and nervous about something,” he says. “Like Ty Murray. I loved hanging out with Ty Murray. Here’s a bull rider, one of the toughest guys on the planet, and he was nervous as all get-out trying to remember his steps. That’s cool! It reminds you that they’re just normal people.”

 Kellie concurs. “I think that’s the thing that makes the show so great, watching everybody learn and struggle through it, and then get out there and do it anyway,” she says. “People know we’re not professional dancers, so if we don’t do it exactly how it’s supposed to be, it’s no big deal, because they’re not expecting us to go out there and be brilliant.”

Of course, with the proper breakout success on reality TV, be it as a contestant (Trace on Celebrity Apprentice) or a judge (Blake on The Voice), the aw-shucks country singer can become a pop-culture star. 

TV Guide scribe Damian predicts such stardom for some of the current crop of country reality personalities, especially DWTS standout Kellie.

“It baffles me that Kellie Pickler hasn’t scored her own sitcom yet. She’s got great comic timing, is cute as a button and has the vocal chops to save her from just being an ‘Idol alum,’” he says, going on to handicap others’ chances of making the jump from reality into serious acting. “Blake could make his way into scripted TV, but I think he’s more into getting drinks after filming than actually studying scripts. And if CMT ever redoes The Addams Family, Trace would make a killer Lurch.”

While we don’t see that happening—although with CMT now the home of Dog and Beth: On the Hunt, anything is possible—the probability of seeing more and more country singers in regular TV gigs is great. 

Still, to the country community, the biggest benefit isn’t a disco-ball trophy, coaching a Voice champion or hearing the words “You’re hired.” It’s the exposure that artists like Blake and Kellie, and past reality competitors like Clint Black, John Rich and even Big Vinny (see sidebars), bring to the format and to Nashville. 

Because when the shows end and the credits roll, viewers are left with a positive image of country music. And it doesn’t get any more real than that.

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