Gatlin Lewis isn't really a "country" kind of guy; the 19-year-old is more into bluesy singer-songwriter John Mayer. But when he heard his hometown of Florence was hosting a Country Thunder-sponsored talent competition, he was in.
"What I always say is if you throw a steel-string guitar on my songs, it'll be country," said Lewis, one of the contestants who turned up to audition on a recent Saturday at Florence Town Hall.
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Eight finalists, including Lewis, will perform Friday at the town's annual Freedom Fest at Heritage Park, where 3,000 are expected to take in Florence's festivities and fireworks. Five people will win prize packages from Country Thunder - and might win the chance to sing the national anthem at the event.
The competition drew a seasoned group of local country singers, some angling for the prize packages - free tickets, meet-and-greets with Country Thunder stars - but all looking for a shot to impress any talent scouts that might come across them.
Queen Creek stay-at-home mom Mary Hoffman is a veteran of "American Idol"-style talent competitions; she placed in the top 10 of a competition run by KSAZ-TV (Channel 10) and was "Arizona State University Idol" in 2004. She's also got some big-show experience, having served as a warm-up act for the Glendale stop on Kenny Chesney's Poets and Pirates Tour.
"I've done so many of these," said the 26-year-old, who performed a song she wrote with an acoustic guitar. "You stop getting nervous at some point."
Though she's played plenty of shows, Hoffman has a long way to go before she catches up with April Walker. The Apache Junction woman, 67, performs regularly at the Mesa Marketplace swap meet. Walker sang Lee Greenwood's "Proud to Be an American," one of about 1,000 songs she knows.
"All these teenagers, they know probably 18 songs and that's it," she says. "I've been doing this for a long time."
As one of the greenest performers auditioning for a spot at the competition, you might expect Lance Burden to get nervous, especially after the audio equipment rejected his CD. But Burden, 20, of Eloy was unfazed as he belted out Brooks and Dunn's "Play Something Country." Then, it was off to call his manager at Best Buy and let him know he'd be late for work.
"This is just what I do," he says. "I feel like this is the only thing I'm good at."