Lightning strikes 

Local singer Tyler Barham shoots for Nashville dream

One YouTube video of 18-year-old Tyler Barham shows him in his dad’s kitchen in Florence, singing, acapella, Garth Brook’s signature song, “Thunder Rolls”—the first song ever to air on the Great American Country (GAC) channel when it launched in 1995. More than 300 online comments address Barham’s cover, including requests for Barham to sing other Garth Brooks’ tunes. Half the comments are from girls that simply read, “Marry me.”

Barham isn’t a country star yet, but he’s getting close. In just three months he went from one of a couple thousand people downloading videos of them singing online to one of 16 semifinalists to, finally, one of six finalists in line to be crowned “The Next GAC Star.” Though the contest has been fairly low-key so far, unimpressive in its online nature compared to the televised pageantry of shows like “American Idol” and “Nashville Star,” the real contest is about to begin. In a two-part televised GAC special set to begin Sept. 3, all six finalists will duke it out live, singing one cover song and one original, for the title, a Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar, a music video on GAC and a record deal with Original Signal Recordings.

Barham, the youngest of the finalists, calls himself an underdog, the only competitor who doesn’t have experience in the business. For instance, when all six finalists met up in Nashville last week and met some of the top producers, fashion designers and country singers in the biz, other finalists treated the occasion like no big deal. For Barham, it was quite a different world.

“The other finalists live in Nashville or at least close, and they all have been performing longer, opening up for [country stars] like Craig Morgan and Josh Turner,” Barham says in a recent telephone interview. “I’ve never met these [celebrities], never opened for anyone.”

One of the first people Barham met was Phil Vassar who, before he topped the pop country music charts with “Just Another Day in Paradise” and “Six-Pack Summer,” penned Nashville country songs for other popular artists like Tim McGraw and Alan Jackson. Barham says they sat in Vassar’s tour bus, the cameras rolling, as Vassar talked about life as a country star.

“He talked about life on the road,” says Barham, “and how busy it gets and how many shows you do, how hard it is to keep in touch with family and friends—how it’s going to be for us if we win.”

Each day the contestants met someone new, sat through hours of photo shoots and numerous interviews with the GAC camera crew about their chances of winning the contest. One of the more memorable encounters was with Manuel Arturo José Cuevas Martinez, aka “Manuel,” the hottest “cowboy couture” designer in Nashville. He’s dressed the likes of Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Marlon Brando and James Dean, to name a few. In fact, Australian pop country artist Keith Urban once noted of Manuel: “His clothes feel like sex and money.”

“He taught us about image as a singer and an icon,” says Barham of the designer. “He showed us how to think about our styles.”

Onstage at Nashville’s famous Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the six finalists got a chance to hear each other sing and feel out the competition. Despite the bar’s reputation for jumpstarting a barn full of country singers’ careers—Willie Nelson, for one, got his first country songwriting job after singing there—Barham was unfazed. His influences tend to lean more toward pop country music, not outlaw. But something else marked the occasion for the young performer.

“That was the first time I’d played with a live band so it was definitely awesome,” he says. “Usually I can’t be in the bar past 9 anyway so it was really cool that I got to stay in there.”

Barham won his spot in “The Next GAC Star” by being an “insiders’ choice,” meaning he was picked by music industry judges and not, like some other contestants, by the public. One of those judges is Desmond Child, who co-penned Bon Jovi hits like “Livin’ on a Prayer” and “You Give Love a Bad Name,” as well as the big Ricky Martin hit, “Livin’ La Vida Loca.” In preparation for the upcoming finals, Child worked with Barham in his studio to develop stage presence, something Barham knows he must improve.

“I’m not really worried about the singing part,” says Barham, “but Desmond Child and I knew going into this whole thing that my main problem was stage performance. He gave me tips on what I need to do: ‘Feel the song. If you feel the song that will come off, it will show. Just be natural.’”

For the final, Barham plans to perform a cover of Brooks and Dunn’s “Red Dirt Road,” a nostalgic piece with lines like: “I learned the path to heaven is full of sinners an’ believers, learned that happiness on earth, ain’t just for high achievers.” Barham co-wrote his original song, “Everything You Need,” with a friend in Florence, and Child helped him arrange it in the studio.

“‘Red Dirt Road’ is sort of a fast, excited song and the original is kind of a slow one,” Barham says. “I guess it’s a song to get the girls. It’s a swooning song.”

Barham heads back to Nashville in a few weeks to participate in the live competition, where he’ll have to win over the GAC crowd just as he did the music industry judges.

“I’ll just be in shock if I win,” he says. “I’ll look back and think about when I first started, how this whole thing never felt real.”

It makes him think of one of his last days in Nashville during taping, when he got a glimpse into country stardom that gave him goosebumps. At the Grand Ole Opry he and the other contestants sat right behind country singer Trace Adkins as he played to a crowd.

“It was awesome because they put us on stage so we were looking at the back of Trace Adkins and the whole crowd was right there,” he says. “It was this crazy, crazy feeling like I might be standing where he is someday.”

“The Next GAC Star” airs Wednesday, Sept. 3, and Wednesday, Sept. 10, at 9 PM EST on the Great American Country channel.
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