When Rheannon Rusaw walked into Colter Coffee last week, she looked every bit the country star she hopes to be, wearing blue jeans, plenty of silver jewelry, a long braid and a big, friendly smile.
But image isn’t everything in country music, especially in a place like Northwest Montana. To make it here singers must have the musical chops to back up the cowboy hat and boots, and, if the recent Texaco Country Showdown was any indication, Rusaw has plenty of talent to back up her dreams.
As one of the finalists from Kalispell’s round of the country showdown, Rusaw – who sang as part of her band, “Rheannon” – and Kayla VanBemmel of Eureka will head to Great Falls in July to compete in the state round of the competition at the Montana State Fair.
For Rusaw, 25, it’s a chance to follow the music she’s been singing and playing since she was a little girl, only now there’s opportunity to break into the profession as well.
The Texaco Country Showdown is one of the largest talent search competitions in the country, starting each spring with more than 450 local contests sponsored by local country music radio stations. The winners move on to their respective state competitions, typically held at fairgrounds or other large venues, to sing for $1,000 and a spot in one of the five regional competitions. The regional winners are then featured on the televised national final, where they have the chance to win $100,000.
The Kalispell competition, which took place at the Majestic Valley Arena on April 5 and 6, brought in more than 1,000 audience members to cheer on the local acts.
“That was fun,” Rusaw said. “That was my largest audience so far.”
Rusaw sings with her band at coffee shops throughout the valley, and also participates in gatherings that celebrate contemporary Christian rock. That’s her band’s usual genre, Rusaw said, but the leap to country music is an easy one.
“Country is life songs; there’s so much to connect to,” Rusaw said. “There’s so much you can say in it and have it mean different things to different people.”
Connecting with others is a major reason Rusaw loves to sing. As the worship leader at Whitefish Foursquare Church, she said she’s enjoyed reaching out to groups of people to share her story and her faith.
Rusaw grew up in Kalispell, graduating from Flathead High School, where she sang in the choir. She learned to play guitar along the way, and now plays the Washburn her instructor played.
When she’s not playing with the band, Rusaw is likely working as a shift manager at the Dairy Queen in Kalispell.
A quick chat with Rusaw reveals she is engaging and friendly, and it’s not a stretch to imagine these qualities translating well on a stage in front of thousands of people. She’s also keen on writing her own music, and her songs can range from the “squishy” love variety to the “nearly metal” tunes she creates with her band in jam sessions.
For now, Rusaw and her band – consisting of David Zimmerman on drums; R.J. Bradford on bass; Thaddaeus Morton on lead electric guitar; and occasionally Jeremy Peterson on bass – are focused on the Great Falls show.
But there are also plans to record a contemporary Christian rock album at Snoring Hound Studios in Somers, Rusaw said.
Ideally, Rusaw would like to sign with a label and tour.
“Professional music has always been my dream,” she said.
Rheannon will take the stage in Great Falls and have fun up there, she said, and whatever happens after that is up to the judges. Win or lose, Rusaw has no intentions of putting down her guitar.
“I’m still going to play music,” she said.
For more information on the Texaco Country Showdown, visit www.countryshowdown.com. For more information on Rheannon, visit the band’s fan page on Facebook or listen to music on YouTube.