At 10 AM last Saturday, when the Hard Rock Cafe opened, the line to get in stretched down the block on Ontario and a little ways around the corner. A lot of them were wearing cowboy hats. The USA Network’s fourth season of Nashville Star is casting, and the Chicago audition notices had brought out dozens of people looking to become country music superstars.

Nashville Star is like American Idol for country singers, but the machinery is a little different. For one, contestants can accompany themselves on an instrument, so as the hopefuls filed into the Hard Rock some of them started breaking out guitars and tuning up. That and the number of Budweisers being served at the bar lit up the place with a kind of hootenanny vibe. Also, there’s no Simon Cowell–and had there been one here, I’m sure he would’ve had his ass soundly whupped by the end of the day. Auditions were simple: around 30 seconds of a song sung in front of a camera and a room full of friends, relatives, and competitors who applauded after every performance, extra loud if the singer really killed. The judge was a guy in a Devo shirt who called everyone with a mauled pronunciation of his or her name and ended every audition with a simple “thank you.”

There’s no upper age limit for the contestants on Nashville Star, so a good number of wannabes had spouses and/or children in tow. A couple added vocal flourishes and hand gestures to their performances, like they’d spent enough time onstage to be comfortable with that sort of thing, but most had little or no real experience. Matt Mackling, who grew up in the midwest but lives in Craig, Alaska, flew in from a visit to his family in Sioux City, spurred by his sister’s urging and a few local karaoke championships. He looked like a scrubby Jason Mraz in a faux-vintage T-shirt and a trucker hat. “I could’ve got all dressed up, but I wouldn’t have been as comfortable,” he told me. “I’m not into the whole boots thing.”

Competitors can choose from 50 songs for their audition, but the list could easily be shortened to 10. The lyrics to Patty Loveless’s “Think About Elvis” are among the worst words ever set to music, but it takes 30 or so renditions of the first verse (“I try to think about Elvis / Memphis / Oprah in the afternoon / I try to think about palm trees / Fig leaves / The Creature From the Black Lagoon”) to comprehend them at the level I do now. A short, stocky, goateed man in a cowboy hat who sang George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning” was followed directly by another short, stocky, goateed man in a cowboy hat who sang George Strait’s “Amarillo by Morning.” The second one sang it a little sadder and a little better. I wanted to interview the guy afterward, but I couldn’t tell which one was him.

If I had to pick a favorite for the day it would have to be Laura Mackley. She’s 18 and from Joliet, skinny with long, dark hair. I interrupted her rehearsing on an acoustic to ask her if she’d ever performed for an audience before. “Oh yeah,” she said confidently. “At church all the time. And in the living room for family.” Her guitar strap had a cross screen-printed on it. When her turn came she did an odd and haunting rendition of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene.” After she was announced as one of a group of contestants who would come back for another round the next day, I talked to Laura again. I asked her if the older, more experienced woman who’d sung “Jolene” just a couple of minutes before her had made her nervous. She told me no, then added, “And no one’s done it since.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.