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Mon, March 18

Musicians battle weather, each other in Country Showdown

PRESCOTT VALLEY - Budding songwriters and a band whose members were only recently acquainted met under harsh conditions in this talent show.

Furious wind gusts and cold drizzle left contestants at the Yavapai County Fairgrounds on Saturday performing in front of empty seats in the Arizona State Final of the Colgate Country Showdown, the country counterpart to "American Idol."

As the weather got ugly, however, the talent didn't grow thin as contestants mustered their hunger for the spotlight, leaving the veteran judges with the toughest round to call in recent years.

"They all had good voices," said panelist Barbara Hansen, a business consultant with WNI, echoing comments by Ken Koziol, an executive with Phoenix-based Entertainment Solutions, who said contestants were the "best I've ever seen" in his five years of

judging the competition.

Singers, songwriters and bands compete in the annual series to get to the National Competition, where the winner bags $100,000 and the coveted title of Best New Act in Country Music.

Radio stations sponsored winners in their respective markets from locations including the Phoenix area, Sedona, Las Vegas and St. George, Utah, to enter the Arizona State Competition.

Country Showdown producer Angel Mlecki said judges of this competition have sent three contestants to the finals in the last five years.

Last year's overall winner, Michelle Rene, netted a contract with a Nashville record label and airplay on the

490 radio stations contracted with the series.

Contestants performed for a maximum of seven minutes onstage, most presenting their own material or an original song with a cover tune.

Mary Hoffman from Sedona said she placed second in her local competition five times before winning her regional contest this year.

"I played covers all the time I got second (place)," she said, before finally winning after playing her own songs.

"I said 'Right on, I'm sticking with originals,'" she added.

Hoffman said many of the contestants know each other from traveling around the state entering competitions, adding that she previously placed second behind Michael Morse, who followed her on Saturday with his two songs, "God Bless the Country in Me" and "Getting High

with Willie."

Sixteen-year-old Delaney Westfall won a Vegas-area competition with her song, "Picture Perfect," inspired by attempts to understand love.

Joe Panther, who lives in Scottsdale, sang Dierks Bentley's "Lot of Leavin' Left to Do" before "On a Day Like This" - a song he wrote about his father.

Panther, 29, said he has worked on and off in Nashville the past six years working, playing songwriter nights - more or less open mics - and working with other songwriters.

This was his debut outing on the star search circuit.

"It's a lot of fun. It's a good opportunity to get a lot of pressure on and go out there and perform," he said.

Brian Stace & The Band made it into the competition as the only band entry on the heels of a winning 3 a.m. performance they had in Toby Keith's bar in Las Vegas.

Stace said he hired a fiddle and bass player from Los Angeles to play the Showdown competition because his normal lineup couldn't commit to the whole stretch if they went all the way (regulations require the same lineup for all shows).

Stace said he needed to win the $1,000 prize for the state competition to cover his losses, if anything.

"If I win, I'm out $500. If I lose, I'm out $1,500," he said.

However, the check - and the shot at the finals - went to Heidi Wood from St. George, singing a Martina McBride song, as well as the first song she's ever written, "Gimme Some Summer."

"I was shocked. There's a lot of talent here," she said after winning.

Judges criteria were Marketability in Country Music, Vocal/Instrumental Ability, Originality of Performance, Stage Presence/Charisma and Talent.

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