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Graham Pearson gives a visual cue to the rest of the band as they back up new amateur talent at the annual Country Showdown. The band (this year they call themselves "The Pearly Whites") only have a short time to put together arrangements for the contestants. Photo by Phil Houseal

The Colgate Country Showdown presented by KNAF-AM will be held Thursday, August 25, 2005 at the Gillespie County Fair Grounds. The contest gets underway at 8:00 p.m. Admission is free. More information is available by calling KNAF radio at 830-997-2197.

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The Life of a Sideman

by Phil Houseal
August 24, 2005

Someday I’m going to write a column on the life of a sideman. He is the guy who is content to pick away at the back of the stage while the stars parade past the microphone, stand in the spotlight, and soak up all the admiration and applause.

The sideman is a special breed. To him, performing is more about making the rest of the band sound good than it is about showing off.

Fredericksburg has a good chance to see some of the finest sidemen around at work this Thursday at the Gillespie County Fair Grounds during the KFAN/Colgate Country Showdown. Of course, the obvious fun is comparing the caliber of the amateur singers who are vying for local and state placings and a national televised final worth $100,000. But this year, watch how hard the five guys work at the back of the stage to make the singers sound good.

Graham Pearson and Steve Vidro have put this band together since 1999. The group’s name depends on the event sponsor. This year they are calling themselves “The Pearly Whites” since the sponsor is Colgate.

Vidro - who played for Larry McGill and the South Star Band - is the drummer. Pearson plays guitar. He also organizes the Relay For Life concerts held each April 15.

“This is never an easy gig, but always an interesting one,” Pearson said. Vidro calls it “grueling.”

“Not all the songs are country standards,” Vidro said. “Some are written by the performers, and some are brand new. We try to make them sound as close to the recording as we can.”

Weeks before the contest, each entrant sends in a recording of the two songs they will perform. Pearson takes the raw music and writes out arrangements for the band. The day of the contest, the band gets together for the first time. They start around noon, then spend the afternoon putting all the songs together. After a break for dinner, they are at the fairgrounds setting up by 6:00 p.m. At 8:00, the show starts and the hard work begins.

“The first time the band gets to meet each singer is when they show up for the contest,” Pearson said. “We don’t even know in what order they will appear until they draw numbers that night.”

“It’s always exciting when each contestant steps on stage,” Vidro agreed. “The singers are eager to sound their best, and we in the band are just as eager to make each contestant sound as good as a national star.”

Over the years the pressure has increased as the contest stakes have risen.

“Back in the 1990s, contestants at the Gillespie County Fair were mostly young local country singers,” Pearson pointed out. “Since 2000, competitors have realized their chances of getting promoted to the regional finals are better if they enter several first rounds. So Gillespie County now attracts contestants from across Texas and even from neighboring states.”

“The quality of talent has improved significantly,” Vidro added. “I wouldn’t want to be the judge.”

Crowds have grown to match. Vidro notes it is not unusual to see a crowd of 2000 hoping to catch a glimpse of the next big star.

The local contest also attracts celebrity judges. In recent years, contestants have had to perform in front of the likes of Gary P. Nunn and Robert Earl Keen, Jr.

But no matter who is watching, or who is singing, once that singer takes the microphone in hand, it’s time for Vidro and the band to go to work.

“It’s very rewarding to know that at the end of the evening, we have helped a young person take a step towards realizing their dream.”

Spoken like a true sideman.