Ah, the ever-elusive “big break.” Musicians are always looking for it; dreaming of it. And now, at age 19, Tempe country chanteuse Rickiejoleen has as good a one as you can get these days.
The singer (that’s her real name — the full handle is Rickiejoleen Winter Selman) has been playing in honky-tonks across the state for years, and is now on national TV as one of the 10 finalists on the new season of the USA Network’s “Nashville Star” (basically the country version of “American Idol”), the same show that launched the career of rising country crooner Miranda Lambert.
So forgive the gal if she’s excited about the whole thing.
“This is what I asked for. This is what I’ve wanted my whole life. This is my dream of all dreams,” says Selman.
She’s not kidding. It would be nice to have an “everyday Tempe girl makes it big on TV” story, but there’s little everyday about her. As weird as it sounds, Rickiejoleen (pals call her “R.J.”) has been playing gigs since she was 8.
“Both of my parents don’t have musical backgrounds, but ever since I was little, it’s been my thing,” she says.
So at what point does obsessive interest in music turn from precocious behavior to the markings of a possible child prodigy? Pretty early, according to Selman.
“I was about 6, and that’s the only thing I did. I got home, I wouldn’t do my homework, I’d turn on my radio and sing.”
The next step was a weekly kids karaoke contest at the now-defunct Mr. Lucky’s in Phoenix, which fueled her enthusiasm for performing live. At 8, she started learning the guitar and then soon started looking for venues around town that would let her play.
“I would call up bars and be like 'I know you don’t usually have music, but I’d love to play at your bar.’ I would make up my own gigs,” says Selman. Nearly all of these concerts were unpaid, but she was more interested in experience than cash.
This led to an engagement three nights a week at the Reata Pass Steakhouse in Scottsdale, which Selman says she held for three years. Despite this relative success, the idea of a preteen country singer was still a hard sell for many music people around town.
“I was totally not taken seriously,” she reports on how other musicians treated her at the time. “That’s the main reason why I picked up guitar, so I could play my own music.”
Rickiejoleen says she started getting taken seriously as an artist at around 13, and was playing shows several nights a week at that point. The success had a price — dropping out of school after eighth grade.
“I had been booking my own gigs and running a band for three years already,” she says. “I was seriously working three or four nights a week, so it was hard for me to go to school.”
She also felt that keeping up with school while managing her budding music career alienated her from her classmates.
“Kids would give me all this crap, 'Oh, you’re on TV, why are you going to our school, why do you dress the way you do?’ ” says Selman. “I had teachers asking me how much I made.
“So finally at eighth grade, I was touring, I was working, and I said 'You know what? This ain’t gonna work out for me.’ ”
Her parents weren’t happy with that decision, but they didn’t want to stand in the way.
“There was nothing I could do,” says her father, Rick Selman. “I’d come home, and I’d say 'Rickie, you need to do your homework,’ but what am I going to do? Take her guitars away?”
Skipping high school has obvious effects on education. She was home-schooled up to a point and plans on getting her GED in the near future. She has her eye on business courses after that. Leaving school had a more profound impact on her culturally.
“I definitely grew up way differently than anyone I went to school with. I’ve missed out on a little bit,” she says. “But as far as the whole drama, hanging out at people’s houses stuff, that doesn’t concern me.”
In talking to Rickiejoleen, it’s clear that she is a bit of an old soul, and also clear that she wants to be thought of as one.
“Of course the things I write about a normal teenager wouldn’t write about. I’m so different than everybody else…” she says, before catching her conceited-sounding statement and laughing about it. Selman later shares that she has only two good friends that are “around” her age, and everyone else she socializes with is over 35, like her buddy and sometime writing partner, Gin Blossoms guitarist Scotty Johnson. (She does, however, note that she’s “getting into” the “hanging out with people my own age” thing.)
Rickiejoleen’s “Nashville Star” journey started inauspiciously: She didn’t go to the Arizona tryout at Rawhide at Wild Horse Pass. Actually, she didn’t even know about it.
Her dad says that she was always resistant to the idea of competitions after her experiences with them when she was younger, but warmed up to the idea after she turned 18 and wanted to make some more money to move out of the house. So they headed to Las Vegas for the tryouts there, where she sang “The Lucky One” by Faith Hill, and, perhaps prophetically (or optimistically), “New Strings” by Miranda Lambert.
It was enough to get her through the regional stage, but when it was time to find out if she had made it as one of the 10 finalists who would actually get on TV, the news didn’t come in time.
“The day they were supposed to call, we didn’t get a call,” says Rick Selman. “She was saying, 'I don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m going to have to get a job.’ ”
Luckily, that fate was averted when the news came that she was indeed one of the fortunate 10.
“I’m waiting for it to come to like, life, to realize it. It’s completely not set in,” she says. “My dad asks me all the time, 'How do you feel? What’s going on inside your head?’ I don’t know what to say right now!”
Rickiejoleen has a refreshing level of self-confidence. She speaks often of her musical experience, emotional maturity and describes herself repeatedly as a “pretty girl.” But she also understands that the nature of “Nashville Star” is such that she could be eliminated after one week. Her dad says, supportively, that she’s “already a winner” just by getting on the show. She’s the only person from the West to make it to the final 10 out of tens of thousands who auditioned.
Of course, he also says with a father’s pride, “She’s going to change country, is what’s going to happen.”
Before the series started, Rickiejoleen got a taste of the darker side of fame. She’s been criticized on the USA Network’s online message boards for not being country enough, specifically on the thread “I’m confused — is Rickiejoleen Country or a 'teen pop sensation,’ ” which has generated 63 skeptical replies. Indeed, she openly lists classic rock bands like Aerosmith and Journey with her country influences (Alan Jackson, Reba McEntire).
“You put me on stage, I’m a complete rocker,” she says. “I’m sweating my butt off, throwing that guitar around. I’m just like a total rock dude out there, but I’m a chick.”
She’s also excited to work with this season’s folkie “Star” co-host, Jewel (a more conventional choice, Cowboy Troy, is the other co-host).
“I remember going through little stuff as a kid, like the first guy I broke up with or whatever, and putting on her CD and falling asleep to that,” she says. “And now I’m going to be working with her. It’s nuts.”
She’s unfazed by the criticism, and in fact offers a response with a quote from country legend David Allan Coe.
“He said, 'People stereotype me as a country-western singer. I’m not a (expletive) country-western singer. I sing whatever the hell I want to sing.’ And that’s the way I feel.”
She’s also not worried about harsh words from Anastasia Brown, known as the Simon Cowell of “Nashville Star,” the acid-tongued judge who doesn’t mince words.
“Anything that people want to throw at me, I’m like, 'Let me hear it,’ ” says Selman. “And I’ll take what I want that I feel you’re right about and use it to my advantage, and the other part, you can kiss my (expletive).
“I really want to hear her opinion on me. I love people that just say what they think and don’t beat around the bush, so I think I’m going to really like her.”
Ralph Phelan, a sound engineer at Phase 4 recording studio in Tempe, is confident about Selman’s chances. He’s known her for four years, but was convinced of her talent after a recent performance.
“I would say about four months ago I saw her perform at Cactus Jack’s and it was remarkable. I knew then that she was primed and ready,” he says. “I told her, 'Any judge, any professional, any label head that sees you, if they don’t pick you, they’re crazy.’ She’s attractive, she’s extremely talented, she’s a great person. She’s just got a lot of drive and ambition.”
No matter the outcome, Selman, who will live in Nashville for the rest of the time she’s on the show, has no plans to leave the East Valley for good.
“I love Tempe and I love Arizona,” she says. “There’s always fun people, everybody’s cool. My crew’s here.”
Naturally, though, the ever-confident Rickiejoleen thinks she’s going to win.
“Who on that show doesn’t want to win?” she asks.
Even if she doesn’t pick up the Warner Bros. recording contract, Grand Ole Opry performance and Chevrolet truck, it’s obvious that she’ll still be playing somewhere. Don’t even mention the alternative.
“If you were to take music away from me right now, I would just feel totally empty and that I’d have nothing to live for. I would wake up and not know what to do with myself,” Selman says.
“I just don’t know any other life.”
>> The fourth season “Nashville Star” premieres 11 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 11 on USA.
This is the fifth season of “Nashville Star.” So far the show has produced one bona fide country star — Miranda Lambert, who placed third in the first season. Her album “Kerosene” has sold more than 600,000 copies. The actual winners? Not quite as fortunate.
Buddy Jewell: The season-one winner had a gold record and a couple of top five hits with his 2003 debut, but his follow-up tanked and led from him being dropped from Sony BMG in 2005.
Brad Cotter: Call him the Justin Guarini of “Nashville Star.” The season-two winner’s album flopped, he was dropped from his label, and hasn’t been heard from since.
Erika Jo: A young’un, much like Ms. Rickiejoleen, who won season three at age 18. Her self-titled released sold even less than Cotter’s, but she’s now a regular at the Grand Ole Opry.
Chris Young: Last year’s victor hasn’t had much success, but it’s probably too early to really call him a bust. The 21-year-old is pursuing a college degree in his spare time. Smart guy.