Is it just me or is time just flying by on this season of Can You Duet (CYD) on CMT? As host Lance Smith intro’d tonight’s Top 5 duos, he reminded us that we are three short weeks away from “two people who will walk away with their ultimate dream, a record deal.” How did we get to week five so quickly?
Next on Lance’s agenda was the judging panel. First he gave a nod to Big Kenny, singer/songwriter and one half of the duo Big & Rich. Next up was Scott Borchetta, founder/president/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). The winning pair will win a contract on Big Machine. After Lance acknowledged Naomi Judd he segued into the fact that she and her daughter Wynonna were this week’s mentors. He asked Ms. Naomi, “How did it go?” She said that according to her daughter, it “was the most amazing group she’d ever seen. She was blown away.”
As you might remember, Wynonna and her mom definitely know their way around country music duos and what it takes for one to make it in the business. After all, together they performed as The Judds, winning numerous awards from the Academy of Country Music as well as the Country Music Association. Between the years of 1985 and 1992 the pair won five Grammy Awards as “Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal.” They’ve recorded six studio albums, gathering many gold and multi-platinum sales awards. To top all that, Wynonna has a very successful career as a singer/songwriter on her own. With all that going on, I was looking towards the two of them working with each duo during the mentor sessions. We would be shown part of each get-together just prior to each act performing on stage.
Lance’s big deal of the night was to remind everyone of last week’s tweak to the rules of the show. After each performance the panel of judges would talk about what they had just seen and asked to vote yes or no as to whether or not a pair should be advanced automatically to the next round. If all three agreed, then that duo was safe. If not, then they would have to wait until the end of the show for the final results when we would all find out who would leave.
Here’s the one last bit of business I like to add in before the singing begins. Early on, Scott Borchetta listed the qualities he’s looking for as he watched each performance. Basically it’s the same thing that both Ms. Naomi and Big Kenny (BK) would be looking for. In fact, my wish list is pretty much the same too. They are:
- Undeniable talent
- Undeniable desire
- A great vocal blend
- Star power
As the performances started, JB Rocket (Jonathan Cox and Brandon Green) were up first. All the clips this week were filmed at Ms. Naomi’s house as she and Wynonna checked out each duo. Brandon offered that it was surreal to be in her home, playing in front of the two of them. It’s an informal set-up with the Judds on one couch and the performers just feet away also sitting down. JB Rocket would sing the Brooks & Dunn “Neon Moon." There was some interesting interplay between mother and daughter as Ms. Naomi felt the two should have Jonathan sing lead instead of trading off with Brandon as they’ve done in the past. Wynonna thought differently which seemed to please Jonathan although in the end the pair did follow Ms. Naomi’s direction. I thought the song had a nice flow to it and they sounded good together. I did notice a sour note or two about a third of the way in, but the two went on as if it never happened, which is always the best way to go.
Ms. Naomi effusively sang the praises of Jonathan’s voice and said Brandon was a “perfect sidekick.” Her vote was yes. Scott said the song was hallowed ground but with all due respect to Ronnie Dunn the two did a great job on the melodies and made it better. His was also a yes vote. BK said their voices blended beautifully and he could tell they’d been working hard on it a lot. He was impressed they stepped it up to another level and urged them to keep improving. He couldn't vote yes or no just yet.
Up next was O’Shea. Their selection was Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me” which Wynonna said was one of her favorite songs of all time. Her comment to the two of them was to not work too hard to impress and that it’s okay to “keep it real” in connection with the original. On stage Mark played keyboard this time instead of his guitar. I thought it was sung beautifully but it left me feeling flat because there was no connecting with the audience or between the two of them. This has been my problem with all of the performers since the very beginning. Most of them rarely spark together or include the audience. Sounding great just isn’t enough.
Big Kenny talked about how Jay pushed the range of her singing key so that it was out of the zone that would give her optimum performance. He said no. Scott said that he knew how much they want this, to win the competition, but he just doesn’t think it’s gonna be there. Ms. Naomi noted that musically Jay is okay but emotionally there’s a disconnect. She also said no. O’Shea was given a chance to speak and Jay said that after last week’s vote of three immediate yeses, tonight came as a bit of a shock to them. Mark said he knew the criticism was important and is “what makes you grow,” that he takes it to heart.
The Stellas hit the stage. In the clip we were shown Ms. Naomi saying she’s personally invested in every duo, but more so with these two. Marylynne said she felt like they have yet to shine because of her nerves. Wynonna laughed as she put them to ease by telling them she’d just had her forty-fifth birthday and she's “just now is walking out on that stage like I know what the heck I’m doing.” Before this clip ended Ms. Naomi took all the girls upstairs to show them her wardrobe because they all need to figure out what their “look” is. She told Marylynne expressly that “she was a work in progress.” When it was finally time for The Stellas to perform, they sang “Hanky Panky” in a kind of mix-in of rockabilly and honky tonk. It sounded great and their energy level was very high. The weird thing about their performance to me was there was no connection with either of them or the crowd but it didn’t matter to me at all. It seemed like they were an a whole ‘nother plane of existence and we were just lucky enough to be able to watch.
Scott Borchetta said that, like last week, he wasn’t really happy with their song choice, it was “strange.” He’s really looking forward to next week’s Original Song Night because there were several of their own songs that knocked him out. Ms. Naomi commented that they were very entertaining but also can’t wait for next week and their original song because they “definitely have their niche.” Big Kenny was in agreement about the songs, both the covers and their own. He did think they were the best he’d seen them be as of yet. Some solid praise, but no yeses, so they will have to wait til the end of the show to find out if they would stay or go.
“Love Hurts,” written by top notch country music wife and husband songwriting team Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, was the song of choice for Ryan & Avalon. As he explained it, their version would be “broken down to the melody and the lyrics. It just hits you when it’s that simple.” In the mentoring session, Wynonna thought it was perfect except for the last note and she wanted Avalon to open her eyes when singing. Avalon answered back that her love for the song was so intense she wanted to be selfish and keep it more to herself. I’m not sure if I grasp all it was she’d meant by that, but it did appear she gave the song everything she had up there on the stage.
BK thought their performance was so amazing and special that he stood up and, using his arms stretched out, gave them a big “Y for yes.” Ms. Naomi called them “vintage and classic but yet you are so now. You always leave me wanting more and next week I want to see you rock.” She gave them a yes. As usual, Scott B loved them. His only critcism what when nearing the end, Ryan took over the lead vocals for a bit. Of course, he voted yes.
Last to hit the stage for the night was Steel Magnolia who would also perform a classic, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” They wanted to do something that was “real country” so they figured why not “one of the greatest songs ever.” Josh continued on by saying he usually takes the lead vocals but tonight they were breaking out their secret weapon. As he pointed to Meghan he said “her pipes, so everyone can see she’s the real deal singer.” The two of them blew Ms. Naomi and Wynonna away in their session. So much so that all Wynonna could say was they were amazing and asked if they had any questions. All I could say after watching it for the first time was “WOW.” Part of it was sung as a ballad but in the middle they changed up the tempo and dynamics. Between that and how their vocals melded… I’m still tripped out by their performance.
Big Kenny’s response was a big and immediate yes. Ms. Naomi told us that yesterday as the pair sat across from her and her daughter, Wynonna called them riveting and irresistible. And tonight she herself said, “I second that emotion.” From Scott we went “from the cool rock and roll of Stealer’s Wheel last week to hillbilly heaven crying down on us all tonight and just bringing it home, it’s Steel Magnolia and that’s a yes, babies.”
Now we’d seen all the performances. Ryan & Avalon and Steel Magnolia were both safe tonight to go right on through to next week. Sadly O’Shea was sent home. I’d enjoyed the two of them. Mark said they’d be playing in a “town near you” and to come on out to see them.
Lance closed tonight’s Can You Duet with a reminder that next week is Original Music Week with Scott Borchetta taking up the mentoring position. Joey + Rory, from CYD season one, will stop by for a special performance.
As for me, last week I thought by now I’d have a better grasp on who I thought was best within reach of winning the contract with Big Machine Records. I’m of the mind that Steel Magnolia will be the big winner. I think they are so far ahead of the game in regards to the others that they’ll be hard to pass. I still really like The Stellas a lot but see them more of a Joey + Rory type of duo… a bit left of center but well received. Who are you pumped up for? Did your favorite make it through? Talk to me. Until then, I’ll see you next week.