Illinois Idol

Millstadt talent shows breathe farm air into an increasingly streamlined pop life

Whatever happened to the days where you bumped into your future wife in the beer aisle of the neighborhood Dirt Cheap? Or spent years toiling in local elected offices before vying for the title of leader of the free world?

And whatever happened to organically developed musicians?

Easy answers: The Bachelor, American Candidate and American Idol.

As the chart-topping success of Idol champ and Texas karaoke queen Kelly Clarkson has proved, the pimples of artistic mediocrity can be easily airbrushed these days, with the essential variables being how many appearances you make on Total Request Live, whether the Neptunes have time to slot your reed-thin voice in on their production schedule and what color lip gloss you have on.

But out near a rural southwestern Illinois apple orchard in late October, eight contestants are attempting to do it the old-fashioned way, even if the Idol-fueled disregard for live instrumental backing prevails in most instances. Here in the sticks, a mere half-hour from the St. Louie bustle, Eckert's Country Store and Farms is hosting the inaugural season of its "Shining Stars Show," where weekly winners bank a C-note for their preliminary trouble and the right to compete for $500 and a marquee gig in Branson.

With his receding hairline, pasty skin, boxy spectacles and spare-tire midsection, it is doubtful Mascoutah, Illinois, Air Force Reserve Technician David Ernst will ever share a stage with Carson Daly. Rather, Ernst seems content to belt out "Great Balls of Fire" on the red-barn stage in Millstadt, where the audience wolfs down succotash at picnic tables instead of punching in their favorites in some fancy-shmancy Hollywood theater.

The 37-year-old Ernst is charismatic and can carry a reasonably good tune, but the canned background music and woeful wardrobe selection -- his blazer has apparently been in the closet since Ernst's First Communion -- aren't helping matters in an ultracompetitive finale, in which Ernst is pitted against a "punk-country" band called the Trailer Park Travoltas, a twelve-year-old juggling contortionist, a honey-dipped homecoming queen and a gaggle of would-be JonBenét Ramseys.

From "Balls," Ernst launches into the Billy Vera and the Beaters ditty to which Alex P. Keaton and Ellen Reed slow-dance in Family Ties, the one that goes, "What did you think I would say at this moment?" Get married, of course, which is what Michael J. Fox and the chick who played Ellen, Tracy Pollan, did in real life, thus cementing "At This Moment"'s place alongside the theme from An Officer and a Gentleman as one of the most romantic songs ever.

Tap-dancing through a rousing rendition of "Rocky Top," Ernst bounds off the stage to a throng of friends and relatives. High-fives and hugs? Naw. Ernst's son hands him a cell phone. On this chilly October night, Ernst, like the Idols on TV, is all that and a bag of rocks from J-Lo's block, even if he isn't declared the winner at night's end.

That distinction belongs to fifteen-year-old diva-in-waiting Melissa Crespo -- who covers the Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone" -- although juggling contortionist Book Kennison and his papa, Richard, have every reason to invoke the "we wuz robbed" claim by night's end.

To get to the finals, each contestant must emerge victorious from one of eight preliminary competitions, with contestants varying from adults such as Ernst to "nine-year-old girls singing 'God Bless America,'" according to Trailer Park Travoltas guitarist Kory Kunze of Belleville -- or, as Eckert's spokeswoman Angela Gordon puts it, "stage-mom hell."

"The stage is like the set from Hee-Haw," says Kunze, "and the competition is a crazy mix of guitarists, violinists, jugglers, singers that sing over recorded music and bands."

"A karaoke fest," adds Travoltas drummer Kenny Williamson, more to the point.

Most contestants fit Williamson's description, with a few fundamentalist-Christian wrinkles -- the most blatant on this night being repentance-rocker Steve Strothers' and nine-year-old juggler/ventriloquist Timothy Anders' acts. During his preliminary-round appearance, Anders tosses a trio of rubber balls to a Christian mockup of the Beach Boys' "I Get Around," once again exhibiting mainstream religion's annoyingly hypocritical propensity for profiting from pop culture while denouncing it from the pulpit.

"Boy, that kid sure could manipulate those balls, couldn't he?" says Dennis Miller-esque emcee Buck Wylde.

Touché, Jesus.

Judged exclusively by emcee Wylde, Jerry the Sound Guy and an Eckert's character named Slim Tenderloin, persistence proves to reign supreme in the prelims -- sometimes at the peril of far more talented onetime performers. To wit, Strothers and the ultimate JonBenét replica, Makayla Smith -- resplendent in diamond necklace and black velvet gown as she sings the theme from Phantom of the Opera (she's eight years old, mind you) -- have taken two failed cracks in prior rounds before emerging with questionable victories the third time around.

"The judges are a disgrace! Next year they will not be the judges," fumes Eckert's Gordon on the eve of the finals. "In fact, as of tonight, they will not be the judges."

And they aren't, replaced by an all-Illinois panel headed up by Millstadt Mayor Weldon Harber. But the result of the finals is as controversial as any round before it.

Going in, smart money is on either the Travoltas or contortionist juggler Book Kennison, if only for the uniqueness of their acts (everyone else sings solo). But whereas the Travoltas sound strikes a sour note in agri-land, Kennison, who juggles, spins plates and twists his seemingly jointless legs over his head -- at the same time -- seems like a surefire winner.

But it is not to be for the young St. Charles phenom. The all-Illinois panel taps the fifteen-year-old Crespo, also from Mascoutah, for the $500 and plum Silver Dollar City (prearranged Branson venue) gig, which will take place sometime in 2003.

Either way, choosing between a singer and a juggling contortionist is "comparing apples and oranges," says Kennison's father, Richard.

"He [Book] didn't take it hard," reveals Richard. "I had counseled him that talent shows are pretty impossible [to judge] -- even when you're comparing singers to singers."

Over shortnecks of Stag at the band's gig at Frederick's Music Lounge, three nights after the "Shining Stars" finale, the Travoltas' Williamson concedes that Crespo possesses some prize-worthy pipes. But had Ernst won, he says, "there would have been fistfights."

Here at Fred's, where they're opening for the Sayers, the Travoltas sound a gajillion times better than they did on the Hee-Haw stage. The crowd is minuscule, but hey, it's a school night, rationalizes lanky lead singer John Clements as the band launches into a leave-it-all-on-the-floor rocker that lives up to the stylistic moniker "punk-infused country."

"That's rock & roll, ain't it?" beckons Clements. "These guys just wear cowboy hats all the fuckin' time."

Ah yes -- witty, spontaneous stage banter, as far removed from American Idol's canned heat as humanly possible. And that's plenty good enough for the Travoltas and their lovely wives, all of whom are old enough to remember Alex and Ellen's moment and still have plenty of respect for fateful encounters at Dirt Cheap.

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