Country music fans in the Los Angeles area know Graham Bunn from his DJ slot on KKGO-FM (Go Country 105), but starting Tuesday night, the Raleigh, N.C., native has a new nationally televised platform. He’ll host “Real Country” on USA Network, a new music competition program featuring 21 emerging artists hand-picked by a panel of some of the brightest lights in country music, Shania Twain, Travis Tritt and Jake Owen.
Billed as the search for America’s next country superstars, each hour-long episode functions as a standalone, a showcase with three performers, whether they be solo artists, duos or groups. One of them will be chosen by the audience to win $10,000 and a performance at Stagecoach, California’s annual country music festival held in Indio each spring.
The winner of each episode then goes on to compete in the grand finale during the climactic eighth episode. The prize at the end of the road is $100,000 and a highly coveted performance at Nashville’s iconic Grand Ole Opry, known as a launching pad for many of today’s top country stars.
The show was shot in Nashville’s Municipal Auditorium on a set built to look like a bar with a live audience of several hundred people dancing to the music.
It’s the first such program in recent years focusing solely on country, although USA was home to “Nashville Star” that ended 10 years ago. Like other music competition shows, there will be guest stars, who include Wynonna Judd, Kane Brown and Big & Rich. And for Bunn, who grew up listening to Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash with his dad, it’s his first hosting gig.
“USA decided to scour the country to find someone who could appreciate country at its core, and have an appreciation for where country is now. I checked the boxes they needed. I’m very enthusiastic about the history of country music,” Bunn said.
The stories told in country music songs have long resonated with him. “I’ve always associated country with my family, and some of the core values I most identified with, including the hardships,” said Bunn. “To hear someone tell a story makes you feel that you’re not alone and I think country does an amazing job of being relatable.”
Over the years, country music has evolved to include influences from other musical genres, and that’s a discussion that’s had on “Real Country.”
“There’s a conversation of where we are as a genre, where the sound is now and the influences that have changed it. With the accessibility of music in the palm of your hand, there are influences across the board and easy access to them,” said Bunn.
The contestants are seasoned pros who play 100-150 gigs a year at venues ranging from dive bars to county fairs — but they’re generally unknown outside of Nashville.
“It’s a journey for the artists, a feel-good story to go after their dreams,” Bunn said. “It’s really cool to see them pour their hearts out for people, and rare to share the opportunity of seeing them be the best version of themselves — to get up on stage and give the performance of a lifetime. The talent level is incredible.”
The panel of Twain, Tritt and Owen is also a key element in helping the artists reach the highest levels in their performances — and have a good time, as Bunn did.
“I’ve been friends with Jake for a few years,” he said “Travis is a legend and we quickly became close and I can’t say enough about how much he cares, and how professional he is. Shania is just iconic. She always made me feel so welcome, and she’s incredible to be around, and cares so much about the new generation.”
The show comes at a tender time for the country music community, having just lost 12 people in a mass shooting at the Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks.
“It’s no secret we’ve dealt with this before,” Bunn said, referring to last October’s mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas, the deadliest such massacre in U.S. history, which claimed 59 lives. ”We are a family and we love and support one another. We’re all here for anyone who needs it and honoring those who lost their lives. We strive to make the world a better place in times of darkness.”
(“Real Country” premieres on USA Network Tuesday, Nov. 13, at 10 p.m. ET/PT.)