Beginning Tuesday, 29 artists will be singing for their lives — or at least their future in country music — on a brand-new TV competition series, but you can also expect passions will be just as high among the all-star panel assigned to critique the performances.
Shania Twain, Jake Owen and Travis Tritt have handpicked the acts who will appear on the eight-episode season of USA Network’s Real Country, and among the three, you could hardly find more different opinions on the current state of country music.
Twain, an executive producer, says she helped hatch the show to try to bring “dimension and variety back into country music.”
“I think we’ve lost that along the way,” the 53-year-old country icon tells PEOPLE. “I personally want ‘different’ … I think there’s more repetition than is necessary. I don’t think there should be any repetition anyway.”
Owen begs to disagree, though he does allow that Twain, as a trend-setter in the 1990s, “understands what it’s like to come in as an artist who is not like everyone else.”
Still, the 37-year-old hitmaker counters, “to just generalize that country music is nothing but the same regurgitated thing over and over and over, I don’t think that’s true at all.” What he hears are “lots of different artists with lots of different things to say.”
Then there’s Tritt, a traditionalist who thinks the genre is too diverse and wants to “bring the focus back to the same type of country music that I grew up listening to.”
“I think it’s wonderful that country music has been able to broaden out and cover all these different genres,” the 55-year-old multi-platinum-selling artist tells PEOPLE. “But the fact is, in my opinion, if country music goes so far left or so far right out in this expanse, sometimes it becomes very difficult to find the center again.”
All right, all right, folks. Let’s settle it down! There’s still a show to put on — and indeed, all three stars have selected a roster packed with promising (and diverse) young country talent.
Unlike other competition shows, the contestants are almost exclusively seasoned performers, some with years of touring experience under their belts. The three panelists screened numerous audition tapes to each pick seven acts, for a total of 21, which includes three duos, one trio, one quartet and 16 individual artists. The choices defy the male domination in country radio play: Women are well represented, making up 11 of the 29 performers.
All the acts will be showcasing cover songs, just so the audience will “be able to have some familiarity with what the artists are performing,” Twain explains.
Country radio personality Graham Bunn is emceeing the show, which will feature three acts per episode. Twain, Owen and Tritt will offer their critiques in a first round, and after the studio audience eliminates one performer, the panel will be joined by guest commentators, including Big & Rich, Wynonna Judd and Trace Adkins, for a second round. The audience then picks a weekly winner, who will receive $10,000, an appearance at the annual Stagecoach Festival in California and a spot in the show’s eighth episode, the grand finale. The series champion will take home $100,000 and earn an appearance on the Grand Ole Opry.
All of the episodes were filmed on a Nashville set back in late August and early September, but Twain, Owen and Tritt aren’t about to spoil the suspense for viewers.
“I was really surprised by some of the performances,” Twain teases. “I was more impressed than I thought I would be by some of them, and I was very pleased that that translated to the audience in many circumstances.”
Owen hints to PEOPLE that he made some good picks: “Let me put it this way. I can say I did very well with the guys and girls that I chose, and the way they represented country music exceeded my expectations.”
Reminded of her own struggles to get a career foothold, Twain says she’s just grateful to be able to give other artists a breakthrough opportunity. “This is a real genuine shot at something, and I had a lot of compassion for them,” she says.
Watching so much promise — and desire for success — “was hard,” she says, “but it was also very inspiring. They all came with a great amount of talent … so it didn’t require a lot of patience on my side. I was fully entertained, and I was being entertained by quality artists the whole time.”
Real Country premieres Tuesday, Nov. 13 at 10 p.m. EST on USA Network.
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