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AVALON IN NASHVILLE: Bringing Woodstock to Music City By M. R. Smith

With the runaway success of American Idol, it was only a matter of time before someone figured you could do the same with singing duets, and get two stars for the price of one. Last year CMT (Country Music Television) did just that, pairing up with American Idol producers Freemantle Media North America last year to create Can You Duet, capitalizing on the great tradition of country duets: Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, The Judds, Brooks & Dunn, and recently Big & Rich. The premiere of Can You Duet in April 2008 was the highest ranked premiere in CMT history, and at the two-month season’s end the top three finalists found themselves with record deals and ready-made fan bases.

But something is a little different this second time around. Checking the bios on the web site, most of this year’s finalists list mostly contemporary country favorites as influences: Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Martina McBride—plus predictable pop/R&B faves like Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder. But what’s this? Here’s a nice young churchgoing fellow from Nashville who loves Johnny Cash and Elvis, teamed with one particular dark-haired 25 year-old beauty who lists . . . Björk, Jeff Buckley, Elbow, and Etta James as her influences. And she’s from . . . Woodstock?

Being the next Tammy Wynette wasn’t remotely on Avalon Peacock’s radar. As the daughter of legendary avant-garde composer/musician Annette Peacock, she grew up the U.K., France, and Woodstock, surrounded from birth by great music and musicians. A kaleidoscope of influences resulted in her becoming interested in a wide variety of musical styles, from funk to folk to electronica, resulting in her working with such diverse artists as Naked, Coheed and Cambria, and George Clinton with 420 Funk Mob.

Country was never really on the menu for Avalon, until seeing her friend Chase Pierson perform his original tunes at an open mic one night. “I fell in love with the songs after the first verse. They we’re real . . . and funny! I got it right away.” Soon she was providing caramel counterpoint to Chase’s gritty drawl with the loose Woodstock confederation Mechanical Bull, on releases All Hat No Cattle and A Million Yesterdays, released on the Woodstock MusicWorks label in 2007.

A chance visitation by the casting director of Can You Duet to Mechanical Bull’s MySpace page resulted in a direct invitation to the open audition in Nashville, so Chase and Avalon figured, why not?...and made the drive south. They found themselves waiting outside with 7000 others, eight hours before finally getting inside. But it was OK, said Chase. “Everyone was cool, not cutthroat or competitive. If this had been in New York, people would have been killing each other.”

The first round had each duet perform exactly 20 seconds for low-level producers, who eliminated most right off the bat. Contestants with judge-worthy talent and looks along with, for lack of a more tasteful term, “joke” contestants, were immediately re-auditioned, performing an entire song on camera. Chase and Avalon made the cut for the third round, where they now had to perform at Nashville’s Wildhorse Saloon for this season’s celebrity judges: Naomi Judd, Big Kenny of Big & Rich, and Big Machine Records president/CEO Scott Borchetta. After a 14-hour wait before finally being called to perform, once again they made the cut, becoming the tenth pair of finalists selected for the show.

When Chase had to pull out due to previous commitments, the show’s producers suggested Avalon pair up with 22 year-old Nashville native Ryan Larkins, who was similarly separated from his original duet partner. The new duo worked out well, with Ryan’s more full-bodied voice and quirky appearance blending well with Avalon’s smoky timbre and natural look.

While most of the other competitors are trying to fulfill a lifelong dream to achieve success in the genre, Avalon admits that she “hated country music [for a long time] probably because I didn’t have the right introduction to it. After hearing Willie Nelson, Hank Williams, and more of the good old-time stuff, it made a lot more sense to me.” Chase suggests that her being a newcomer to country was what “made her stand out, gave her a refreshing and unique style.” She has an easy and fearless presence live, and a sweetly laconic delivery not unlike Lucinda Williams, but without the affected drawl. And yes…the camera likes her. A lot.

But she knows that as something of a “dark horse” duet, she and Ryan are in for very tough competition for the prize, and has enormous respect for her fellow contestants, noting that “the talent here is unbelievable. These are people who do this everyday.” Still, this unlikely yet charismatic duo has a good shot at going deep in the competition. Stay tuned…

The second season of Can You Duet, featuring Avalon Peacock, can be seen on CMT on Saturdays at 8 PM EST, starting June 20. See for more details.

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