Dustin Wilkes is the only singer billed as the "true country boy" in the bunch aiming to be crowned the next "Nashville Star." As being typecast goes, he doesn't mind the label at all.
"There are a lot of ways you can be represented in the media," Wilkes said. "That sounds pretty true to me."
Folks in his hometown of Jefferson may view roots as an edge, too, for the man who completed tours as a Marine, beer truck driver and bar bouncer before finding his way onto the national television stage tonight.
He's one of 10 singers debuting in the fifth season of the fan-driven show that premieres at 10 p.m. on the USA Network. The eventual winner of the American Idol-like contest will receive a recording contract from Warner Music Group.
But Wilkes and the four men and five women joining him on the Acuff Theatre stage at the Grand Ole Opry know the TV exposure alone could affect their musical careers.
"There are a lot of talented people on there," he said. "I don't think any of us really look at it as a competition. We understand it is more or less the luck of the draw as to who gets more votes and who doesn't."
Wilkes, 26, spared a few minutes Monday between production schedules, changing a flat tire and running errands to talk about his recent turn of events.
Originally picked as an alternate, he learned of his finalist status in late December and since has been staying at a hotel with other finalists in Nashville, where he happens to live and work.
The producer's initial phone call is not one he'll soon forget.
"It didn't even hit me for about five seconds. It's one thing when you're going to be picked. It's another thing when you're going to be alternate. (You thinking), 'Just another close but no cigar in my life,' " Wilkes said. "Oh man, I'm usually a pretty cool, calm and collected kind of person. But I wasn't right then. I was so happy, I was screaming like a little girl."
He moved to Nashville shortly after his time with the Marines ended in 2004, a story line sure to be profiled in the show.
During Wilkes' service in Marietta, he became involved with Toys for Tots and wrote a song called "One Toy at a Time" for the program. The composition became an anthem for the charity. He traveled across Georgia and the country to record and sing it.
The charity collected more than 350,000 toys that year from an eight-county area in Greater Atlanta, said a proud Pamela Ryman, who encouraged Wilkes as an officer in charge of the Marine charity.
Performing also helped Wilkes realize his calling.
"When I wrote that song, that was another situation that just kind of came out of no where and just kind of scooped me up," he said. "I was on tour for that for several months, singing in dress blues at stadiums and football games to little stages, 10-foot square in the middle of Wal-Mart ... That is definitely what provoked it. I had (sang in front of people) before, but not like that."
Wilkes set out for country music's capital city within days of his release from the military. He pursued random jobs putting him nearer to the industry and stage. At the well-known musical saloon called Tootsies Orchid Lounge, Wilkes dropped the stool as a bouncer and grabbed the mike as singer/songwriter.
Fans quickly followed.
"He is a good entertainer," said Susan Keaton, who is organizing Wilkes' voting support as president of his fan club. "He is doing really well. (It) probably hasn't hit any of them yet, on how it's going to be."
The 10 finalists were tapped from more than 20,000 to audition during a nationwide search. That's a staggering accomplishment to his father, Luther Wilkes.
"I told him, 'This doesn't happen very often for a little ol' boy from the country to go all the way like this,'" said the elder Wilkes, who lives in Jefferson. "The Lord just blessed him with a voice and talent, too."
Looking back, the elder man can see Dustin's talent in blossom.
As a boy, he made up songs, collaborated with his sick grandfather who loved gospel music and sometimes had to be told to silence his musical instruments and sleep.
"When he was 5,6,7,8, I would have to make him put his guitar down at night, so he could get up and go to school the next morning," Luther Wilkes said. "He'll just start singing a song that jumps in his head."
One tune figures prominently on both men's minds today. It's an original piece by Dustin called "I Bleed Country."
Words to the song tell the elder Wilkes the two down-home lessons he and his late wife, Vivian, taught their boy stuck.
"Remember who you are and whose you are," Luther Wilkes said, recalling his advice to Dustin years ago. "And, anything worth doing is worth doing right."
Win or lose, Dustin Wilkes promised the song will be aired one day. Because it will delight listeners who identify with "true country" boys like the Wilkes men from Jefferson.
"The music business is the most cut throat, crazy industry I've ever seen. There is not exact science to it," Dustin Wilkes said. "Someone can deserve something good and work hard and not be getting something good at all.
"What keeps me in this business is every time I play in front of somebody, the way the people react (when they) enjoy what I'm doing."
Jefferson native Dustin Wilkes will debut as one of 10 finalists in the season premiere of the fan-driven show called "Nashville Star" that airs at 10 tonight on the USA Network. For more information on the program or how to vote for your favorite performer, log onto www.usanetwork.com/ series/nashvillestar/
For more information about Wilkes' music, log onto www.myspace.com /dustinwilkesmusic
Published in the Athens Banner-Herald on 011107