Look out, Nashville — if NBC’s “The Voice” has its way, some new talent will be heading over after this season ends. At least, that’s what we assume after the second night of the Season 13 premiere on Tuesday, because that episode was obsessed with country singers.
Specifically, celebrity coach Miley Cyrus said that she wants to be taken seriously in country music — she’s sort of country royalty, thanks to dad Billy Ray Cyrus (“Achy Breaky Heart”) and godmother Dolly Parton. Still, Miley spent all those years in pop, so she needs to prove herself by breaking a country newcomer.
However, her plan was foiled by that wily country star Blake Shelton. Every season, many country contestants choose him as their coach because he has the most connections on Music Row.
“I’ve got to beat Blake. I’ve got to get a country guy or gal on my team,” Cyrus mused during the episode, and later announced, “I’m here to win ‘The Voice’ with a country artist.”
Even though this “fight” is a convenient narrative for the season, it also makes sense for the show to spend time on country singers. “The Voice” struggles to launch stars, and while it hasn’t produced anyone near the level of “American Idol’s” Carrie Underwood, its country winners have made impressive inroads. Sundance Head toured with Shelton and another “Voice” finalist, RaeLynn; Danielle Bradbery’s sophomore album drops in December; Cassadee Pope had a hit single with Chris Young; and Craig Wayne Boyd signed a new record deal.
And as a bonus for producers looking for ratings, country fans are often loyal voters (and viewers) for singing competition shows — which is part of the reason you see so many country finalists on “The Voice,” and on “Idol” back in the day.
The Cyrus-Shelton battle started with the first contestant of the night, 30-year-old Keisha Renee from Los Angeles, a former backup singer for Nicki Minaj. She confided that although she grew up singing gospel songs, she fell in love with country music when she moved to Texas, even as people told her to “stick with pop or R&B.”
“It’s an advantage that the coaches can’t see me, because I feel like, sometimes, you judge a book by its cover. And I want to break the mold of what people think a country artist looks like,” Keisha said, alluding to the not-diverse world of mainstream country.
All four coaches, including Adam Levine and Jennifer Hudson, spun around in their chairs after Keisha belted out Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You.” Levine marveled, “She’s singing something that Blake would do with Jennifer’s voice … and now she’s got, like, Miley’s style.”
Cyrus tried to persuade Keisha to be on her team, and elevated her roots over Shelton’s Oklahoma home town. “He’s not from Nashville. I was born and raised in Nashville, Tennessee. Nashville is thriving right now because there are so many people that are putting a new face to country music,” she said. “I think I’ve got everything as a coach that you want to do.”
Despite Cyrus’s best efforts, Keisha went with Shelton. “I chose Blake because I’m new to country, and I feel like he’s the best person to learn from. He’s the king of country,” Keisha explained.
Later, Cyrus lost out again on Red Marlow, a 40-year-old dad from Dickson, Tenn., who described himself as “country as corn bread.” Red sang demos for 15 years in Nashville before starting a small construction company to support his family, and impressed “The Voice” coaches with “Swingin’” by John Anderson.
When it was time to convince Red to choose a team, Cyrus quickly dropped some names: “When I grew up, I sat with Waylon Jennings, I sat with Dolly Parton and I took notes.” But Red, who had previously crossed paths with Shelton in Nashville, decided to go with Team Blake.
Of course, this all set up Cyrus’s triumph for the last singer in the premiere: 21-year-old Ashland Craft from Piedmont, S.C. — who has a gig singing in a bar — belted out “You Are My Sunshine” in the style of Chris and Morgane Stapleton. The coaches were blown away.
Shelton tried to woo Ashland by mentioning the holy grail of Nashville — country radio. “I think it’s important to recognize the traditional sound that you have,” Shelton said. “There hasn’t been a voice like yours on country radio since Gretchen Wilson. There’s a total open lane for you right now.”
While that may or may not be completely accurate — female country singers have a notoriously difficult time getting radio traction — his pleas almost worked. Until Cyrus stepped in with a passionate pitch.
“Blake really is the king of country, that’s for sure, but they need a queen. And I would hope that would be me. Because I’m back — more rooted and grounded than I’ve ever been in my life,” Cyrus said. “I want us to be this power team of these two females who aren’t scared of being the punk rock Dolly Parton.”
After an internal debate, Ashland chose Cyrus, who rejoiced — and now officially sets up the “Miley vs. Blake” story line for the season.
“This whole time, I was dead set on Blake,” Ashland admitted. “And then I look at Miley … she’s had experience in country, but she’s also branched out. She just seemed like the right fit for me.”