In a Nashville music scene that rewards the youngest, hottest, cutest flavor-of-the-month, the mostly aging contestants on the new CMT reality show "Gone Country" don't have a snowball's chance in hell of making it as bona fide country music stars.
No matter how eagerly they yell "Yeehaw!" as they don cowboy hats and boots in tonight's premiere, the Grand Ole Opry is probably not in the future for the likes of Carnie Wilson, Maureen "Marcia Brady" McCormick, or Twisted Sister frontman Dee Snider - let alone "Thong Song" warbler Sisqo, Julio Iglesias Jr., "American Idol" runner-up Diana DeGarmo, or Boston bad boy Bobby Brown. Tim and Faith have nothing to worry about.
Essentially "Gone Country" is "The Surreal Life: Nashville." The only difference here is the cohabiting "celebrities" are given a goal beyond simply extending their fame for the duration of the seven episodes. The winner will cut a tailor-made single produced by host John Rich of Big and Rich, and, presumably, fulfill their urban cowboy/girl dreams of renewed stardom.
Except, of course, they won't.
Even the series producers are hip to this fact, wasting little time tonight letting their less-than-magnificent seven - who collectively are about as "country" as Woody Allen - know as much with a series of man-on-the-street interviews prophesying their doom.
"Bobby Brown in country music?" asks one woman incredulously before collapsing into a fit of helpless cackles. It isn't just Whitney's ex who draws scoffs as each contestant is skewered in turn. The cruelest cut goes to Iglesias. Most have no idea who the less-famous brother of Enrique and son of Julio is. One man rams the message home succinctly: "Country music has died if that's all I have to choose from."
On the one hand it's a savvy move letting these people vent the skepticism that home viewers will likely share. But it also sets the bar so high - we must prove them wrong! - that it seems impossible to clear. Obviously, "Gone Country" will be about diverting fish-out-of-water television, not music.
And yet the premiere is just captivating enough to actually make you want to hear what kind of music these people might make. There is DeGarmo's fierce "Idol"-honed competitiveness, Brown's sweaty bravado, and McCormick's dizzying mania. (A drinking game could easily be devised around her giddy highs and teary lows.)
The show even hints at a potential, and potentially disturbing, romance between McCormick and the former New Edition singer, who bond as the group's only smokers. Snider, doing his wiseacre wild-man shtick, gets off the best lines, however. In a caffeine-deprived rage he unearths a musty tin of java and grumbles, "They started making Maxwell House in 1892, apparently this was the first can."
The affable Rich - who favors full-length furs that won't endear him to PETA - either overestimates his skill as a producer or is a first-class actor, because his visions of success for his charges are, frankly, ludicrous. Only sweetly wholesome yet coldly calculating DeGarmo has any of the necessary factors in her favor. She's young, cute enough, a relatively unknown commodity, and has the voice best suited to the genre.
While lifelong fans might be offended by "Gone Country," which takes its title from an Alan Jackson smash about carpetbaggers from other genres, the tide has turned enough in Nashville that the series mirrors an actual trend. Everyone from Bon Jovi to Jewel to Jessica Simpson has migrated to Music City to see if dabbling in pedal steel might boost their bottom line. "Gone Country" seems to be asking, in its silly, trifling way, "Why not Sisqo?"
Sarah Rodman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.