Friday, February 17, 2006

Urban Cowboy, Rural Chaos

Keith Urban and II swear this isn't turning into some blithering celebrity blog, but as luck would have it, today's video target was also the object of adulation. Keith Urban (a country music singer of some acclaim, I'm told) brought a small town to a starstruck halt as he fullfilled an obligation borne of horsepower. Ya see, five years ago Keith bought a tricked-out Impala from a specialty car dealership in North Wilkesboro. Though he wasn't nearly the household name he is now, the savvy sales guys recognized a sensation in the making and offered to knock two grand off the price, if only he'd return one day for a fan appearance. Today he did, and the result was bedlam.

Urban GirlsAbout 500 people gathered outside the dealership, most of them female - all of them insane. Okay, that's unfair, but if you saw a parking lot full of grandmothers and pre-teens convulse uncontrollably at the sight of an approaching tour bus, you'd be shaken up too. I'm just thankful no one got hurt in the ensuing crush. That includes me; some of those older ladies pack a mean elbow. Once Urban got inside however, things leveled off a bit. The recent Grammy winner sat calmly at a table while a great rush of estrogen and flashbulbs flowed past. Through it all, Urban treated his frenzied fans with nothing but love - proving himself a class act. Even if his tour manager was a complete tool.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The Final 24

From the RoofAlways one to tackle the tough issues, I stuffed my fancy-cam into an overhead compartment last weekend and choked down salty peanuts all the way to Hollywood. The mission: accompany the globe-trotting Shannon Smith on a brief yet grueling American Idol press junket. It wasn’t easy. You try dragging a camera, lights, tripod, batteries, discs, and a half dozen other gadgets through a post 9/11 airport. Jostle your gear too fast and the TSA agents start calling for back-up. Add to that a crowded flight and you got the makings of one very long airplane ride. For photogs however, it’s the only way to fly. Besides, the accommodations often outweigh the conveyance. The swanky Beverly Hills hotel the taxi driver dropped us off in front of sure did: valet parking, room service and enough giddy American Idol finalists to out-pace any number of high-end ice machines.

Idol GirlsThere were 24 finalists to be exact, all hand-picked by Simon, Paula and Randy to face a nation of voting viewers for a once in a lifetime chance at global stardom. Twenty-three of the hopeful vocalists are guaranteed to lose, of course. But that didn’t stop a single one of the two dozen young men and women from beaming on cue as they waded into their very first full-fledged media circus. Almost as many camera crews waited in the top-floor ballroom; scores of swarthy lenslingers and their photogenic partners from around the country, all poised to poke and prod the nervous singers on their very public quest to become a household name. I didn’t have to understand everything about the Idol phenomenon, but I did have to keep it all in focus. And in color...

Chris and StewartI’m ready to get on stage and sing...”, said Chris Daughtry as he settled into our interview chair. The last time Shannon and I saw him, the McLeansville resident almost shattered the glass on my lens with his accelerated vocals. That was back in August, when American Idol was a just vague ambition of the Crown Honda service writer. Since that hot afternoon, Chris has wowed the celebrity judges, survived an exhausting elimination week and become the subject of countless adoring websites. So far the sudden acclaim hasn’t gone to his shaven head. In fact, he seemed genuinely glad to talk to someone from the Greater Piedmont Googolplex, where his wife and two kids are awaiting the outcome of his most unlikely journey. Unassuming to a fault in person, Chris’ blistering pipes take center stage whenever he takes the microphone. I can’t wait ’til the rest of the planet sees what this little dude can do. Hands down, your lenslinger's favorite.

DSCF0012I guess you can tell from my accent, I’m definitely country...”, said Kellie Pickler - in a tone of voice that warms the hearts of mothers while sending heterosexual men into cardiac arrest. Soaring vocals aside, Kellie is absolutely stunning - as anyone who has seen her now famous audition segment can attest. In person, the 19 year old radiates na├»ve vulnerability - and with good reason. Abandoned by her mom as a toddler and continually let down by her incarcerated father, young Miss Pickler has a persona, a look and a back-story that makes reality show producers hyperventilate. As for how she’s handling all the attention, Kellie’s in something of denial. When I told her how much excitement her appearance had already generated on-air, on-line and by the nation’s water cooler, she looked looked at me with the innocence of a southern sweetheart and said “Ree-uh-lee?” Really, Kellie. Really.

DSCF0023I tell ya, ya just ain’t been nowhere til you been to Rockingham...” With that, Bucky Covington cracked himself up, as he often does. So far, the ex-body shop worker from the Sandhills hasn’t gotten the Idol airtime that Chris and Kellie have received, but that will surely change when the show goes live next week. Lanky, quick-witted and intoxicatingly Southern, Bucky kept Shannon and me in giggles and tears the entire time we hung out with him. Whether he’s answering silly interview questions or lounging on the roof of his temporary Beverly Hills digs, Bucky is at home. But the lanky cat can’t open his mouth without some showbiz schmuck shooting bottled water out of his nose at his Richmond County twang. Not me. I recognize his accent as that of a certified North Carolina good ole boy - the kind of hillbilly I've made a habit of partying with all my life. Wait until American hears him rip through some Skynyrd, or - as Bucky promises - some southern fried Neil Diamond.

N.C Idol HopefulsI wanna build my mansion on our goat hill”, Heather Cox declared. The Jonesville native and recent graduate of Surry Community College is the fourth of the North Carolina hopefuls. Like Bucky, most of her Idol moments have ended up on the cutting room floor. But quick review of her Denver audition tape reveals a clear and confident voice, coupled with a personality that makes even the grumpiest of cameramen smile. At first glance, Heather appears to be just another hottie (nothing wrong with that!), but on closer inspection you soon realize she’s a small town girl, a minister’s daughter and a sincere fan of her family’s goat farm. You also get the feeling that, unlike Kellie, she grasps the signifigance of the vortex she finds herself in . Hip to the fact that it could all end next week, Heather knows her life is already, inexorably altered. But don't write her off. This chick’s got moxie.

DSCF0002Before the l-o-n-g day was over, Shannon and I interviewed every one of the 24 finalists. From the eerily composed Gedeon McKinney to the incredibly photogenic Ace to the gray haired and delightfully soulful Taylor Hicks. I liked them all, a strange reaction from someone as jaded as I. But I’d be lying of course if I pretended to be rooting for anyone other than our four North Carolinians, all of whom stand a damn good chance of moving many a unit. Before that happens however, they - along with the other 20 finalists - have to convince a fickle public they’re worthy of the coveted title. Meanwhile I’ll be watching closely, and pretending I’m tuning in merely for the psychological study of it all. See ya couch-side.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

You Stay Classy, Birmingham...

Here's a big dip of the lens to Jeh Jeh Pruitt (right) and Greg Long (left, behind his ubiquitous camera), two classy cats who saved my bacon in L.A. this past weekend. Known far and wide as two totally righteous dudes, this reporter-photog team from WRBC let Shannon Smith and I stow-away in their rental car for a last minute photo expedition into the Hollywood Hills. Nice guys in a business not known for gentlemanly behavior, they get MY vote for dynamic duo of the year...

Monday, February 13, 2006

Early Bird

I'm quite reasonable behind the wheel these days, but as a fledgling TV geek I was more than a little reckless. Once, while gunning a marked production van down a narrow side street, a brown sedan poked its nose out of a driveway and into my lane. All laws of physics insisted I t-bone the ill-placed vehicle, but somehow I averted collision. As I yanked the wheel to the left and shot by the shocked driver, I instinctively threw her the bird. 'Crazy women drivers', I thought, as I drove on toward the station. When the new Guns-n-Roses song came on the radio, I cranked the knob and pretty much forgot about the one-fingered salute.

A few minutes later I pulled into the lot and eased the van into its reserved parking space. Hopping out, I noticed my General Manager standing out by the front door. He was smoking one of his thin cigars and gave me his usual grin when I approached.

"Hey Ed, how' ya doin?' I asked as I lit up a smoke.

"Good, good..." he said as I jammed my hands in my pockets and took a long drag.

While I inhaled, Ed reached up, took his cigar out of his mouth and in the most casual, friendly way said, "Tell me Stewart, did you just flip off one of our biggest client's Aunt Louise?"

I nearly swallowed the cigarette.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Temples of Emptiness

The SignJet-lagged and far from unpacked, I'm glad to be home from my whirlwind weekend on the West Coast. Hey, how 'bout that red-eye flight? I'm pretty sure I left an IQ point or two scattered across each time zone. But that's not important now. What IS important is that I get a few thoughts on-screen and update my humble blog in the process. That could be tricky though, as a confidentiality agreement prevents me from divulging the exact mission of my trip for a few more days. So bear with me while I cover a few ancillary moments - moments that, not surprisingly, deal with celebrity.

I am by nature and trade unimpressed with celebrities. Having worked with many a delusional anchor-wannabe in my formulative years, manufactured acclaim of any kind leaves me summarily underwhelmed. It ain't a very popular attitude in this town. Ground zero for America's fascination with famous people, every corner boasts posters of pre-fabricated prophets, over-hyped hollow heroes and temples of emptiness. I'm sure it sounds bitter, but I just can't seem to gaze lovingly at the building sized billboards of perfect grins and chiseled cheekbones without thinking about all those technicians behind the curtain. Having said all that, I did enjoy:
...discussing the merits of the much underrated movie "True Romance" with one of its stars, Michael Rappaport. We both agreed the treacly title ultimately did the Tarantino-penned shoot-em-up something of a disservice. Having settled that issue, Rappaport moved on to the next media crew, no doubt forgetting the encounter before he got three feet away from me.

...settling a heated billiards dispute between the members of D4L. I'd assumed they were merely blinged-out pool enthusiasts in need of an impartial judge. When their mountain-sized bodyguard informed they were the the authors of the Laffy Taffy song, I nodded enthusiastically, afraid to tell them I was a suburban father of two whose collection of hip-hop consisted of one badly aging 'Arrested Development' CD.

...pretending I knew who the quixotical lady in my viewfinder was as my partner in crime Shannon Smith peppered her with incisive questions. I've yet to watch a single frame of "24", never heard of Mary Lynn Rajskub, let alone her much celebrated character 'Chloe'. I'm told 'Chloe' is a lady of considerable quirk. If so, I got a news-flash: Mary Lynn ain't acting.
There were other surreal celebrity run-ins, interludes we'll discuss in the coming days. For me however, the highlight of my all-too-brief stay came within an hour of landing at LAX. Much to my delight, my long lost cousin Brian Wagoner, known to many as Monk Siddiq, rolled up in his van and whisked me away to Venice Beach. There we wandered among the vagabonds and philosophers, listening to his mercurial music, discussing my literary ambitions, and examining his mystical quest for inner divinity. I don't claim to understand everything about my Mother's sister's son's lifelong search, but I always treasure our time together and would suffer a dozen red-eye flights and lengthy lay-overs to once again share his air. But I could do without the turbulence.