MONTICELLO — In the still of the night, nine homegrown acts and two celebrity judges cranked up the heat at the Great Jones County Fair on Tuesday’s free preview night.
The Back Home Boys — with roots in Manchester, Decorah and Prairie du Chien — rose above eight other bands and solo artists to win Eastern Iowa honors in the Texaco Country Showdown. They advance to state competition Sept. 8 at the Riverside Casino. Iowa’s winner will advance to regionals and all the regional champs will head to Nashville in January to vie for $100,000.
It’s the largest country music competition in the nation, attracting 50,000 artists in 400 competitions, organizers from Cedar Rapids’ Kiss Country 96.5FM told the standing-room-only crowd in Monticello. The cream of the crop have competed nationally over the years, including Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Sara Evans, Carrie Underwood, Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley, Toby Keith and Tim McGraw.
The Eastern Iowa artists had a lot riding on Tuesday’s event, bringing their A-games to dazzle the five judges: Southern rock royalty Jimmie Van Zant of Nashville; national touring artist Jake McVey of Nashville, who graduated from Mediapolis High School in southeast Iowa; singer Sue Sample of Cedar Rapids; West Music’s Doug Ducey of North Liberty; and Hoopla arts and entertainment writer Diana Nollen of Cedar Rapids.
Each competitor performed two songs, at least one of which was an original composition. We scored them on marketability in country music, vocal/instrumental ability, originality of performance, stage presence/charisma, and talent, with optional bonus points for quality of the original song. Audience members were invited to cast a ballot for people’s choice honors, which also went to The Back Home Boys.
Rounding out the judges’ place-winners were 2. Chad Elliot of Coon Rapids, 3. Matthew Kane and Greenbrier of Cedar Rapids and 4. the Brett Black Band of Johnston. The rest of the talent-soaked field included Lonesome Road of Ely, Danika Holmes of Davenport, Shannon Shepard of Lone Tree, Justin Horesowsky of Kalona and Lady Lowe and the Buttermilk Mountain Boyz of Cedar Rapids.
Their styles range from ballads to bluegrass, with each one sporting a solid fan base and winning style.
Polish and charisma set The Back Home Boys apart from the rest. The band, formed as a trio in 1994, now has seven members playing an array of instruments, from guitar, drums and bass to fiddle and steel guitar, laying some kicky twang behind nice, tight vocal harmonies. Band members play to each other as well as the crowd, with an ease that comes from experience.
The Back Home Boys will do Eastern Iowa proud in upcoming Texaco competitions. For other chances to catch them in action, go to Thebackhomeboys.com
While the totals were being tallied, the celebrity judges took the stage in acoustic spotlights.
Even though he’s moved to Nashville, McVey is never far from his roots. An active recording and touring artist, he plays around 300 gigs per year, popping up often at venues around his home state.
Dressed for the weather in a simple white T, jeans and flip-flops, it’s his boyish good looks that reel you in, and his powerful, soulful vocals that make you go “wow.” He wraps a soaring tenor around his new single, “Best Days of Our Lives,” then dips a little lower for “John Deere: John 3:16″ with a baritone that finished melting what the humidity missed.
Van Zant, cousin to Johnny, Donnie and the late Ronnie Van Zant, Southern rockers who rose to fame through .38 Special and Lynyrd Skynyrd, showcased his lineage. He spoke quietly and eloquently about his mentor, Ronnie, who died in a plane crash in 1977 at age 29, before launching into his favorite Lynyrd Skynyrd hit, Ronnie’s environmental ode, “All I Can Do is Write About It,” in which he bemoaned the concrete encroachment upon his beloved South.
Jimmie Van Zant then finished with his own work, “Feels Like Freedom,” the first single off his new disc. Good music is in his genes, but he’s crafted a style that stands firmly on its own ground.