Shania Twain has long been one of the world’s biggest superstars, and though she’s still in the game herself — she put out her first album in 15 years just last year — she’s now looking to foster the new generation of country musicians. The 53-year-old is an executive producer and co-panelist on USA Network’s Real Country, a reality competition series that Twain says differs from other shows by focusing on the whole package.
“We’re really trying to get down to the core of what makes a star,” says Twain, who stars on the show’s panel alongside Jake Owen and Travis Tritt. “I believe that it isn’t just the voice, it isn’t just the image, it isn’t just the song. To me, it’s all about what is real about the artist, and how well they can communicate that to the audience.”
Real Country also tests its hopefuls in real time, letting the studio audience help determine who wins each of the seven showcase episodes. Those who come out victorious earn a $10,000 prize and a chance to perform at Stagecoach in 2019; they also move on to the grand finale episode, where the winner will receive $100,000 and a chance to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. Yet Twain stresses that the show is less about crowning champions and handing out prizes and more about giving artists the exposure they deserve.
“What I love about the fans judging is only they know whether they’re being reached and whether it’s resonating with them or not,” Twain says. “So I do believe that it will play out that way, and I believe we’re going to find the next country music star.”
The first season of Real Country kicked off Nov. 13, with each episode airing on Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 10 pm ET on USA Network. Below, Twain tells Billboard about the inspiration for the show, how she relates to the contestants and what it takes to mint country’s next superstar.
What’s your biggest goal with Real Country?
My goal and passion behind this is to discover genuine stars. We have a lot of really talented singers and songwriters out there, but not a lot of superstars. I’m on a mission to find an original. Today, sometimes I’m not even sure if I can tell the difference between one guy and another on the radio. And, there’s a lot of amazing guys on country radio, but not enough amazing girls on country radio. So we need to let the top artists in regardless of gender, age — I’m really bored with the discrimination, and I want more diversity. That is what Real Country’s all about, to represent artists who might not get the chance because of the condition of our industry right now.
What have you learned from the experience so far?
I’ve learned a lot about myself, more than anything. I’m still learning about myself with this process. I’m a lot more passionate about the performers than I thought I would be. I thought I would be a little more neutral. Not that I thought I would be passive, but I thought I would be a little more official! [Laughs] I get wrapped up in the whole thing! And because [the artists are] professional already in their own right, it demands respect from us, and I really appreciate that. So it’s not like I feel like some kind of authority. It’s very different from the other shows, in that sense.
Each episode features celebrity guests, from icons like Big & Rich to newer faces like Devin Dawson. Were there any guests that were particularly fun to have around?
Hunter Hayes was a really super sharp, impressive guy. [Having him on the show] just reminded me that we don’t often get to know the artist, we get to know the music and them on stage. And of course, Wynonna [Judd] — my favorite female country artist of all time, outside of Dolly Parton, of course! [Laughs] She was incredible.
It was very equalizing, being together up there [with other artists]. Somebody like Kane Brown, he’s a little bit shy, and sitting beside me I’m thinking to myself, “I’m probably scaring this person.” [Laughs] The beauty is that we’re all just so different, and I’ve just really enjoyed getting to know them a little bit better.
Each episode spotlights music with a particular theme. What’s been your favorite so far?
The drinking songs night [officially titled “Drink Up And Party Down“] was really fun, because so much of my childhood was spent, ironically, singing in bars. I’ve done every drinking song you can imagine — one of the very first songs I ever wrote when I was about 10 was a song called “Ma and Her Wine.” I’d never heard [Deana Carter’s] “Strawberry Wine” before that, but this was a sad ballad about an alcoholic mother. My mother wasn’t an alcoholic, I was just making it up, but I was already relating to the sad elements and the connection to alcohol and suffering and all that sort of stuff. It was fun to revisit a lot of those songs and be back in that spirit.
You’ve previously said, “I want artists to be motivated by what they want to do.” What motivated you when you were starting out?
You have to be true to yourself at all costs, and it can mean risking your future. But I always figured I could always go back to singing in bars, so that was always there. I wouldn’t have changed the risk for anything, because who wants to make it as something that they’re not? I can’t imagine anything more treacherous than that. Being a follower is not being an artist. A true artist is somebody who does their own thing at all costs. And that’s what I did.
I was really only out to do my thing. I wasn’t trying to make any other points, but now, as a supporter of new talent, I’m out to find like-minded thinkers. I’m out there to find artists or give an opportunity to artists that are also saying, “I am what I am, this is my truth, and I’m going to risk everything to do it.”
What would you consider the most “real country” thing about you?
The most real country thing about me is the fact that I learned to be a songwriter through my country music heroes. They were my songwriting professors, people like Dolly Parton, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson. Look at a song like “I Will Always Love You” — this is a cross-genre, universal classic. Dolly Parton was one of my teachers — who doesn’t realize it! [Laughs] My songwriting education is the most country thing about me.
Now that you’ve checked executive producing a TV show off your list of achievements, what’s next?
I want to do more acting, because when you’re acting, you’re not yourself, and it’s kind of awesome to step out of yourself and be someone else just for a minute. I could see myself doing more of that. I’ve already been skydiving, so I don’t think I’m going to jump out of a plane again. [Laughs] I’ve crossed that one off my list.
Taking chances and being out of the comfort zone is really something that I’m enjoying. It’s the way I live my life. I know what it’s like to be rejected — I definitely had a hard time when I first started out. I just feel an inner strength and feel stronger when I’m taking on new challenges — I feel motivated by challenge, it’s exciting, it’s fun. I’ve done a few interesting things out of my comfort zone the last few years, like acting, and now with Real Country, I’m like, “Okay, I’m taking on this mission, and all I really have is passion behind it, and a great audience out there to connect with.”