John Rich, Nashville Star
Credit: Frederick Breedon; John Russell

I like me some John Rich, but our relationship is becoming love/hate thanks to Nashville Star. Let’s get right into last night’s show…

Laura & Sophie
Much to judge Jeffrey Steele’s chagrin, he’ll be mentoring the groups for the remainder of the season. (Sucker.) The teen duo opened the show with the Judds’ “Rockin’ With the Rhythm of the Rain.”I didn’t find them nearly as charming as last week, but their harmonies still sounded decent. Perhaps because, as Jewel noted, they’ve been doing this song for years. She wants to see how they deal with learning new vocals. John wants to see them do a song that reflects their ages, 18 and 16. Steele wants them to work more on their stage presence, because he still feels like he’s at a slumber party. Noting that Steele was their mentor, John asked, “What did you tell them? Did you tell them to take their pajamas off the night of that slumber party?” That was either highly inappropriate or just not funny. Wait, both. Strike one, John.

Ashlee Hewitt

John, who’s had success writing and producing for Gretchen Wilson and now Jewel, wanted to mentor the women, and he got them. Ashlee did her country-baby take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” and while all three judges dug it (Jeffrey’s requisite hollow pun: “There was a lot of fire on that ring”), it didn’t move me. I was, however, happy to see someone (John) finally acknowledge that Ashlee is Jewel-lite … until he took the opportunity to plug the latest album from the “reigning queen of folk-country.” Let’s not make it about the judges. Strike two.

Justin Gaston (pictured)
Jewel has the pleasure of mentoring the men, which includes this sweet, hopeless, 19-year-old part-time model. I almost had to mute the TV during his rehearsal of Plain White T’s “Hey There Delilah” — he kept screwing up because he was intimidated by Jewel. Commenting on last week’s recap, at least one reader argued that Justin was “hired” for the show. And heck, maybe John agrees with you. Following Justin’s performance — which was most notable for a couple of butt shots, that moment when he licked his lips, and an ill-timed cutaway to the girls of Pearl Heart clapping like they meant it not at all — John said, “You come off very, very, very sweet. [Girls in audience scream] Not in a good way. Jewel, I don’t know if you mentored this kid or made out with him for 30 minutes, but something went on. What happened? That was terrible.” Jewel tried to defend Justin by saying he opens doors for everyone (not helpful, Jewel) and that he just needs to have better control of his singing. John snapped, “I think you shouldn’t be on this show. I think you snuck in through the back door.” True, John, but it’s not his fault that someone wanted his hotness on the show — or that you judges decided yourselves to keep him around when he made the weakest debut last week. Strike three! Maybe the producers are hoping John’s blunt criticism will earn Justin pity votes. (For his self-esteem, I hope Justin leaves next week, but gets some acting work.)

After the jump, Jewel gives sound advice, Jeffrey calls Coffey “Charley,” and John says something that makes a sailor blush.

Alyson Gilbert
I imagine it was fun for her to see John walk through the door as her mentor when he was the judge that voted to send her home last week. But she rallied singing the Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” John thinks America will love her or hate her. I’m actually firmly somewhere in the middle: I think she has a nice, mature voice but still seems a little too show-and-tell when she performs. Jewel’s advice for her to study the way Reba McEntire carries herself onstage was perhaps the best of the night, other than…

Pearl Heart
Jewel told the lead singer of the sister trio, 17-year-old Courtney, that she needs to take dance lessons to feel more comfortable moving about the stage. Yes, yes she does. It was painful to watch her wander aimlessly during their otherwise perfect rendition of Bon Jovi’s “Who Says You Can’t Go Home.” Almost as painful: Host Billy Ray Cyrus using the same joke John did. (Both took dance classes, and they didn’t work for either of them!?! Ba-dump-dump.)

Tommy Stanley
It was a night of bold song choices, and Tommy’s, Big & Rich’s “Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy),” won over John. I like Tommy’s voice, and I believe his frenetic stage presence is genuine, but I’m still waiting to connect with him. Apparently, some of the lady contestants don’t have my problem. John asked the Navy man if the ladies are crushing on a man in uniform. When Tommy smiled coyly, John said, “I’m just sayin’, were you singin’ ‘Save a Horse (Ride a Tommy Stanley)’?” At least Tommy is legal. No wonder this show isn’t on during the family hour. (And how cute that John used the term “crushing on?”)

Gabe Garcia
Last week, I questioned the judges’ overenthusiastic response to Gabe, but this week, I thought he deserved the love. Singing Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?,” he was relaxed. He was smiling. He sounded like someone you’d want to hear singing more than one song. Now, John just wants him to work a little harder for the female vote. In his words, pretend you’re at a honky tonk, and “Turn your Texas on.” (I approve that message. Because again, Gabe is legal.)

Shawn Mayer
And the award for the biggest cojones goes to this woman, for taking on what John referred to, rightfully, as the greatest country song ever — George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” If she went home, she wanted to go out in a blaze of glory, and I respect that. For me though, her performance felt shorter than everyone else’s and lacked any lasting impact. I so wanted her to have a Jason Castro-“Hallalujeh” or David Archuleta-“Imagine” moment, because I believe this girl is country and will go back to the pig farm kicking and screaming, but she didn’t. Like John said, she was good but not great. Jeffrey had a stick up his butt because he felt like she sacrificed the lyrics to hit a few notes, while Jewel disagreed, saying she thought Shawn used her vocals to convey the emotion behind them. That’s an interesting debate that, of course, there was no time to go into. I’d also love to hear someone like Rich, who has both the balls to be innovative and the brains to be reverent, talk about how you make a classic your own. I agree with Jeffrey that some songs are “sacred ground,” but I don’t think they need to come with the fear of God. Sometimes, honoring a song means singing it, no?

I was relieved when Coffey finally played that guitar on John Mayer’s “Waiting on the World to Change.” I was worried it was just for decoration. I actually liked this performance. He took Jewel’s advice and didn’t go overboard on the runs. John wants to see Coffey do something original, and while I concede that he still needs to push through with some emotion, I do believe his voice would be unique in country music, as is. With the right material, and the right producer and polish, his sound could be memorable. Even if Jeffrey forgets his name. (Charley went home last week, sir.)

Melissa Lawson
We all think of Nashville Star as being kinder than American Idol, but there’s nothing nice about the way Star is handling its bottom two. None of the show’s contestants know when they’ll sing until their name is called, but after waiting all night, the bottom two have to perform without knowing which one of them has already gotten the boot. Cruel! Lawson made me nervous the entire time she was singing “Natural Woman.” She’s got pipes, but not Aretha pipes. John said she could head to Broadway with the staged performance she gave, every move perfectly choreographed. She does need to loosen up. It’s nice to see someone look confident and own the stage, but when you’re that rehearsed, the audience can feel as though you’d give that same performance with or without them watching. We like to feel needed.

Third Town
I never thought I’d say this, but I’ll miss these guys. They wanted to sing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (!), until Jeffrey talked them out of it. I’m sure that was the right call, but I totally wanted to hear them make that country. After some frustrated tears from Little Toni (or Tony, who knows?), the guys switched their song to Alabama’s “Mountain Music.” Predictable! As was John’s pissy response. He was peeved that the guys didn’t take his advice and name a lead singer. He said he told Alabama’s Randy Owen to watch the show and bet he just turned the channel. Harsh, John. The trio was in tune. Little Toni (or Tony) had the presence of a lead singer. And Big Toni (or Tony) was not nearly as off-putting as he had been last week. Again, I get frustrated when judges put people on the show, then rip them apart for the sound that got them there. Jewel’s curt critique — “You got the crowd going, but I’ve also seen the crowd get going for Japanese karaoke singers” — had me wondering if Third Town wasn’t as nice a group of guys as they seem. But the girls from Pearl Heart looked teary when Billy Ray, AFTER 15 SECONDS OF SILENCE, finally announced that Third Town was going home, so I guess they must be…

So, who is your favorite after Week 2? Is John out of control or highly entertaining? And how much did you want to slap Billy Ray when he said next week was “Pop Goes Country Night?” (That seems to be every night this season.)

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