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Ask Clay Aiken - who skyrocketed to fame on TV's American Idol talent-search show - who his dream duet partners are, and the redheaded singer quickly cites Martina McBride and Faith Hill. Is it a surprise that one of the nation's hottest pop stars would choose two country singers? Not for those who know him best.
"My first exposure was to country music," the affable singer says, pointing out that his mother constantly had a home radio tuned to a country station while Clay was growing up in Raleigh, N.C. "Everyone knew I liked to sing from an early age, because I started picking things up off the radio and singing them."
Clay quickly rose from unknown to one of the most popular singers in America when he was runner-up to American Idol winner Ruben Studdard in the show's second season. Clay's second-place finish came by less than one percent of the 24 million votes cast.
RCA Records, which also has released albums by Ruben and Idol's first-season winner Kelly Clarkson, scooped up Clay and released his debut CD, Measure of a Man, on Oct. 14 of last year. It hit No. 1 on Billboard's Top 200 chart by selling 613,000 copies its first week - a remarkable achievement for an artist's first album and a testament to the popularity of the American Idol program. The album has since sold more than two million copies.
Country music obviously played a role in developing Clay's vocal talent - and his down-to-earth, guy-next-door image. "He's loved country music all his life," declares his mother, Faye Parker.
She recalls that the demo tape Clay recorded prior to entering American Idol featured several country songs. Clay also performed the Bryan White song "Someone Else's Star" in the fifth week of the contest.
Clay started singing country hits almost as soon as he started speaking. He was only 16 months old when he sang "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," the classic Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings duet. The infant would warble the song's famous chorus for anyone who would listen.
"Due to his young age, that was the only line he could remember, so he kept repeating that line over and over again," notes Faye. "I was an avid country music fan, so we listened to country music all the time. That's where he heard it and learned it."
Indeed, Clay drew on country music in his first talent contest as well. At age 5, he auditioned to become a mascot for a local high school's sports team. The mascot was given the prestigious honor of carrying the homecoming queen's crown for her coronation. Moreover, the mascot got to attend the high school graduation and don a robe - heady stuff for a 5-year-old.
Clay joined 25 other children in competing for the mascot job. When the kids were asked if they had any talents, most of them said no. But Clay offered to sing the country duet "Islands in the Stream," a No. 1 hit for Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton in 1983. He belted out the song and won the competition by a landslide.
Clay's mother also spent time performing in a local country band. At age 7, Clay would accompany her to the shows and get up and sing a few tunes, including Mel McDaniel's "Baby's Got Her Blue Jeans On," Ricky Skaggs' version of "Honey (Open That Door)" and John Anderson's "Swingin'."
In yet another contest, 17-year-old Clay chose the Rhett Akins' song "She Said Yes" when competing in a talent search sponsored by the Johnston Community College in Smithfield, N.C. Once again, he won.
Clay continues to enjoy country music, even if the songs on his CD are more suited for pop radio. Meanwhile, he says there's always a chance that one of his dream duets may come true, since one of his favorite singers - Martina McBride - is on the same record label as him.
"If there were ever a chance to do it," assures Clay, "I'd love to."