It’s “Original Song Night” on CMT’s Can You Duet (CYD). As host Lance Smith reminded us, “Two weeks away from handing out a record deal.” It’s down to the final four duos. JB Rocket and Ryan & Avalon are the only two remaining of the couples the judges put together at the beginning of the series six weeks ago. Of the original couples that came to the auditions only The Stellas and Steel Magnolia are left. After tonight, there will be three pairs still in the competition.
Lance also paid his dues to the judging pane which includes Big Kenny (a.k.a. BK), a performer and songwriter both with John Rich (Big & Rich) and on his own, and Ms. Naomi Judd, also a noted singer/songwriter, in duet with her daughter Wynonna as The Judds. The big man of the hour is Mr. Scott Borchetta, founder, president and CEO of both Big Machine Records (Taylor Swift, Trisha Yearwood, Jack Ingram) and and its sister imprint label Valory Music Co. (Reba, Jewel, Emerson Drive). Scott was mentor to the singing partners this week. We were reminded of his win at 2009's Academy Of Country Music (ACM) award show as executive producer of Taylor Swift’s album of the year Fearless. We will see in each segment tonight what the role meant to him as he helped each pair hone their song choice into the best he felt it could be.
Before we go any further, here’s Scott’s wish list for the qualities he’s looking for in the winning duet:
- Undeniable talent
- Undeniable desire
- A great vocal blend
- Star power
Lance asked Scott, “What exactly were you looking for and how did it go?”
He replied, “This is where it gets down to business because we don’t sign artists on cover tunes. We sign originality. We sign unique. We sign artists with vision. And really, when you get down to original songs it really defines what they’re really about and what they feel about themselves. It’s gonna be a great night tonight… very excited.” Not only do I agree with his list, but what he added in his response. Getting to hear music each couple has put together is their own vision and I also think it will be a terrific show.
Up first was Ryan & Avalon. In their clip of the mentoring session Scott thought they’d probably have the biggest challenge as he didn’t know if either one of them are great writers yet. His guidance had to do with the dynamics of their song because “it’s really gonna get down to their vision and can they elevate.” The name of the song wasn’t mentioned but I gathered from the lyrics it’s “Take Me Away.” Avalon wrote the song and I have to say that if you’ve been watching the show it’s no surprise that she did.
It was very sweet and lilting and followed through on their past performances with that ethereal quality I’ve come to expect from them. Which disappointed me as I was hoping they would step outside of the box they’ve built around themselves. After tonight, I still don’t get a feeling I could sit through an entire concert of their music. Ms. Naomi felt the same way and put it this way: “Can you rock a house in a 90-minute concert?” Avalon answered, “Yeah, we can be prepared for that.” Well, okay. But I’m not convinced yet. Scott thought they did a great job and said they "connected with the audience.” Big Kenny wanted to know which of them wrote the song and did they have a publishing deal yet. He thought it was great and “really well written.”
It was Steel Magnolia’s turn next. In the clip Scott mentioned, “From the very first time I saw them, there was something crazy about them that I just loved.” Their selection was “The Edge Of Goodbye,” the first song they ever wrote together. Scott’s suggestion to them was to change it from a blues-y arrangement to a waltz tempo which they said they could do. Don’t get hung up on the whole waltz thing. There was nothing slow paced or dirge-like about the song. Scott closed this segment by saying that they bring something fresh and unexpected each time they get up to the mic and then said, “Dare I say they are the ones to beat so far.”
I would have to agree with that in light of their performance tonight, even if I hadn’t liked them from the start. Their voices were vibrant and they both sold the song for all they were worth. They may have taken the blues element out of the time signature but they left its core empathy in. I might as well be bold enough to say I think Janis Joplin was looking down and smiling as Megan sang. And that’s not something I’d say lightly. BK got into it and his response made it loud and clear. “This is so absolutely fun to sit here and watch such fabulous music happen.” Ms Naomi brought up the jobs Josh has held in the past, like line cook and valet parking, and in doing so said, “I can relate to you. We’ve all done those jobs and you guys get it.” Scott thought they looked like stars and I agreed when he said, “There’s a lot of tough decisions tonight but I’ll tell you, right now, this ain’t one of them.”
With two down and two more couples to go, Lance brought Joey + Rory onstage to sing “Cheater, Cheater,” their original song from last season. Dig them and the song too, but I think I’d rather have heard them perform something else. Yes, it’s their signature song… I get that. They talked about the differences a year could and did make for them. The best question of the night, I think, was from Lance asking if they had any advice to offer up for these last final four duos. Rory said, “No matter what happens, you are all winners. There may only be one person that wins this contest. But we are living proof that if you got his far, you’re a winner.” A great point as they did not win the top prize but it took their career to a higher level anyway.
Going back to the performances, JB Rocket was next at bat. When Lance introduced them he noted that last week they’d brought down the house with their version of “Neon Moon” and Ms. Naomi’s feeling that they have what it takes to win the whole thing. Scott talked about how much they’ve improved every week and only had one suggestion for the only male duo on the show. At one point in the song he wanted Jonathan to sing at full voice instead of in a higher register. Scott’s bottom line was he thought they were really going to be competitors to win. “Their arc is definitely shooting straight up.”
“Lovin’ You” is the name, I think, as it was never announced. It’s a very catchy tune in a definitive pop-ish, rockin’, modern country crossover way. Which just happens to be one of my fave genres, so you know I was diggin’ it. The crowd got into the song big time too as they were boppin’ around to its beat. It caught Ms. Naomi’s ear as well. Her first words were “snap, crackle, pop, groovin’ with life.” Smart woman that she is, these were the publishing rights she was interested in. Lastly she reckoned if Jonathan was the french fries (base) of the group, then Brandon was the ketchup which goes right along with her comment last week that he was “the perfect sidekick.” Big Kenny thought the singing was strong as was the playing and liked the song. But he “still didn’t sense a complete originality. Greatness is there but I don’t think we’ve figured out every aspect of it out yet.” Scott was very impressed with the songs Brandon had brought to the mentoring session and looking forward to hearing more. He thought they "nailed it tonight.” Jonathan said he’s been learning guitar and started to write songs within the last year.
Last up for the night were The Stellas. Scott’s suggestion for the two of them was to watch their head voices (those higher registers) because when they go there it’s the only time their vocals aren’t always nailed down. He remembered the very first session with the open auditions and their part in it. They were one of the two acts that made an impression on him that here was an act he might sign. Before they sang, Marylynne talked about the first time she heard the song. She listened and then she “started bawling.” Scott thought this would be the first time all the audience would see what they are all about. The song meant a lot to them as they sing it at home with their girls who were in the audience. I loved it and the connection between Marylynne and Brad onstage and Lennon and Maisie was palpable and a beautiful thing to get to share.
Now, these two are diverse and I could totally imagine seeing them perform for a whole 90 minutes. Ms. Naomi felt she’s one of their biggest fans outside of their daughters. But she still wanted to see more versatility from them. As the pause between her comment and BK’s lengthened you could almost hear the crickets sing. He felt The Stellas have a vibe and something they are saying to the world. Scott said they glowed and they’d nailed it. His comment that he was “in awe of their musical family” left a silent "but" hanging in the air. He then went on to talk about being in a funk because someone would have to leave tonight.
At that point, I could read the writing on the wall and it saddened me. It still does. The Stellas were eliminated tonight and while I’ve had the chance to process it and understand why, I still don’t have to like it. Tonight was the first time in watching the show that I felt I was manipulated by the producers. Looking back, I could see the “tells” along the way easing our way into accepting their leaving the show. Several times it was mentioned that the duo leaving would be a shocker. When Brad was asked if winning would change things he said that it would change everything. Scott’s awe of their family was another. The key I think is that they seem so sure and true as a family unit that the ways of the road and the music business could fracture their structure. I know firsthand the dangers out there in having a music career as I’ve seen more than my share of the damage done. But I also see a strength in them both to be able to conquer the problems. As Rory mentioned earlier, not coming in first place wasn’t a hindrance to Joey and him… they have acheived quite a lot of success out there in just one year. And so it goes, in my mind, The Stellas will be able to do the same.
Next Saturday Kate & Kacey Coppola will stop by to sing. They were also on Can You Duet last season. They didn’t come in first place either and it didn’t stop them from getting a contract with Scott Borchetta’s own Big Machine Records. By this time next week we’ll know which two duos will be moving on to the season finale. I’ll be very surprised if it isn’t Steel Magnolia and JB Rocket. Who do you think it will be? Talk to me. Until then, I’ll see you next week.