The Road to Nashville

By Beacon Staff

Jody Miller’s first taste of performing live was last year on a temporary stage in the Kalispell Center Mall. Underneath a sign for JCPenney, he strummed his guitar and belted out a Gary Allan tune as shoppers stopped to listen and judges marked his score.

It was the first step toward hopefully making it to a stage in Nashville.

Samantha Guier digs into the vocals on “Born to Fly” by Sarah Evans during the Colgate Country Showdown auditions at Kalispell Center Mall.

“It’s a funny thing, being in the middle of a mall singing,” Miller, last year’s local Colgate Country Showdown winner, said. “But I figured I was playing all the time anyway, I may as well give it a shot in front of people.”

Each year, hundreds of Flathead Valley country music hopefuls like Miller converge on the Kalispell mall to audition for the Colgate Country Showdown, a national music talent search. There are contestants of all ages and types – soloists and bands, songwriters and cover artists.

Julie Bowerman, 15, leans on her guitar while waiting the audience before performing “White Horse” by Taylor Swift for a panel of judges during the Colgate County Showdown auditions.

“It’s a pretty casual atmosphere,” said John Michaels, a local radio personality with 106.3 FM The Bear, one of the event’s sponsors. “It’s not like ‘American Idol’ where they cut them down – we have to live with them.”

Twenty-five of those acts are chosen to advance to the final stage of the local competition, where they perform in front of more than 1,000 people at the Majestic Valley Arena. This year’s finals will be held on Friday, March 27 and Saturday, March 28. Up-and-coming national country star Katie Armiger will give a guest performance Friday night.

“For the first time, we get to have two contestants move on to the state level,” Michaels said. The state final will be held Aug. 1 at the Montana State Fair in Great Falls.

Similar events are playing out in other malls and at fairs across the country.

In its 28th year, the Colgate Country Showdown is country music’s largest talent search. Each spring, more than 50,000 people enter and compete in about 450 local talent contests like Kalispell’s. Winners advance to their respective state competitions where they perform at fairs and expositions for a $1,000 prize and the opportunity to advance to one of five regional finals.

Elijah Westbrook, 12, strums his guitar behind the stages set up at Kalispell Center Mall before performing an original song with his father, Ken Westbrook, and others during the Colgate Country Showdown auditions.

After months of narrowing down the contestants, the Showdown culminates with a televised national final at the historic Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tenn., where five acts vie for a $100,000 grand prize and the title.

It may not have the flash and following of reality TV contests like “American Idol,” but the Showdown’s list of former local, state and regional winners includes now famous performers like Brad Paisley, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Martina McBride, Billy Ray Cyrus, Sara Evans and Miranda Lambert.

Kalispell has produced some of its own notable contestants, Michaels said, including one man, Michael Ulvila, who made it all the way to the finals and now plays professionally.

While Miller’s Showdown bid ended at the state finals last year, he still has plans to make it to Nashville.

After graduating with a business marketing degree from the University of Montana last year, Miller is working in Missoula and continues to develop his guitar playing and songwriting. He has recorded about a half-dozen of his own songs and, before his Showdown appearance, made it to the final 16 in Country Music Television’s online music competition “Music City Madness.”

When his fiancée Katie Davis, also of Kalispell, graduates from UM’s pharmacy school, the couple plans to make the move to Tennessee together.

Gary Sweeney, left, performs “For the Good Times” by Ray Price for a sea of people during the Colgate Country Showdown auditions at Kalispell Center Mall. Visiting the Flathead from Vermont, Sweeney said he found out about the auditions the day before performing.

“I’m going to go and give it a shot, because otherwise, ‘What if?’ is something I’ll always have to think about,” he said.

But this year’s Kalispell Showdown contestants won’t have to worry about competition from Miller: His wedding is scheduled in Maui, Hawaii for the same week as the state contest.

“I wish everybody luck and wish I could be there, but I’ve got a pretty important commitment,” he said.

Colgate Country Showdown
Majestic Valley Arena, Kalispell
Friday, March 27 & Saturday, March 28
Doors open at 6 p.m. and the event starts at 7 p.m. both nights. Ticket prices at the door are $10 for adults, $8 for children 12 and under and seniors.

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