• The Hollywood Reporter on LinkedIn
  • Follow THR on Pinterest

Keith Urban, Kenny Chesney and 4 More Country Contenders for 'American Idol' Judge

With the search for Steven Tyler's replacement reportedly focused on talent with strongholds below the Mason-Dixon line, THR looks at a half-dozen stars worth considering.

Kenny Chesney Brad Paisley Keith Urban split L
Getty Images

American Idol has produced its fair share of countrystars from the coterie of contestants, most of whom we recognize from their first names alone: Carrie. Scotty. Kellie. Lauren. And given the preponderance of heartlanders of all genres who’ve dominated the show, Southern Idol wouldn’t be too misrepresentative of a name change. So isn’t it about time the judges’ panel had some country representation, too?

That’s just what producers seem to be wondering. “Country IS America,” Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe told The Hollywood Reporter this week. While declining to directly address judge prospects, the British TV vet, who created the short-lived Nashville Star knock-off CMT’s Next Superstar, spoke enthusiastically about the relative longevity of country careers versus the short shelf life of most pop stars -- and if he’s looking for a judge with a long track record as a star who’s still capable of cranking out No. 1s, country may indeed be the place to go. As the undeniable breakout star of The Voice, Blake Shelton has proven such a figure can become America’s TV sweetheart without having to dilute a down-home thing.

PHOTOS: CMA Awards 2011 Red Carpet Arrivals

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Brad Paisley is in the running to supplement Mariah Carey on season 12 of Idol. His label, Sony Nashville, isn’t commenting, but by most accounts, it seems unlikely -- not because Idol wouldn’t want the good-natured good ol’ boy (who happens to have some TV cred of his own, thanks to four consecutive CMA Awards co-hosting stints with Carrie Underwood), but because, like most country stars, Paisley may find year-round touring too great an addiction to break. Another deterrent: taking time off from the album cycle. His last release, 2011’s This Is Country Music has sold 684,000, according to Nielsen SoundScan, which in today’s diminished market, is no small feat (worth noting: it's his poorest showing), but radio play requires a fairly constant presence that four months spent in Los Angeles could make difficult. Finally, there’s the simple matter of: he doesn’t need the money.  

And Paisley’s not the only country star that Lythgoe’s trifecta of superiors (Fox, FremantleMedia and 19 Entertainment share Idol production and distribution duties) have allegedly considered: straight-talking rabble-rouser Toby Keith recently revealed that he was approached about Steven Tyler’s seat, but turned down the request before the conversation even started citing the intense time commitment that the show requires.

PHOTOS: CMT Music Awards: Kristen Bell, Carrie Underwood, Scott McCreery Rock Nashville

Still, there are plenty more names to bandy about when it comes to the surprisingly stable genre, like these half-dozen candidates for a country judgeship:


Pluses: He’s highly articulate, deeply intelligent about music, and has an acerbic wit. He’s proven himself as a television personality who does well with scripted comedy and spontaneous remarks as co-host of the highly rated CMA Awards for the past five years. Last and possibly least, he and wife Kimberly Williams-Paisley already live part-time in L.A., so he knows his way to Hollywood & Highland and the Nokia about as well as the road to the Ryman.

Minuses: You sometimes have to struggle to pull that acidity out of him, because he’s nothing if not a polite country gentleman -- and with Carey all but guaranteed to be gushy, the show needs a judge who’s eager to hit the gong and tell hard truths. More importantly, his compulsive work ethic might not allow him to spend a half-year sitting in a chair when he’s used to flexing his fingers on stage most nights.


Pluses: She has a mouth on her… just the kind Idol could use, with viewers losing interest in the overly conciliatory post-Cowell age. Taking on Chris Brown and Ashton Kutcher via Twitter has proved she’s unafraid of controversy in the service of a righteous cause. Thanks to husband Blake Shelton’s tenure on The Voice, she’s not only a part-time L.A. resident but already knows how the sausage is made on TV talent contests. Going back a decade, Lambert’s a veteran of that milieu herself, having been discovered when she was a third-place contestant on Nashville Star.

Minuses: Producers need a guy more than a gal, now that Carey’s on board. On her end, though it would be an effective publicity ploy, Lambert might hesitate to be seen as competing with her hubby.

POLL: 79% of 'American Idol' Viewers Want Simon Cowell Back


Pluses: There’s no Toby Keith-style tune-out factor outside the heartland; Chesney’s stadium shows sell out as quickly in Massachusetts as they do in the deep South. He’s not at his peak as a recording artist, but he remains consistently one of the half-dozen top tourers in the world in any genre. And if he would promise to wear sleeveless T-shirts that show off his ripped biceps, you could count on a significant swoon-in factor.

Minuses: It’s hard to get Chesney to say anything remotely controversial in an interview, and the same might hold true under the TV lights. And then there’s that damned hat. Any shutterbug can tell you what a bear it is to photograph his face with the giant shadow it casts, and Idol producers are going to want some eye contact.


Pluses: He’s the one guy on this list who’s essentially already done the job, having been a judge on the Australian version of The Voice. And he announced a few weeks ago that he may not sign on for a second season, which leaves him freeand clear to do his judging here. Post-throat surgery, he may also want to take a breather from the road, suggested one Nashville insider. Eye candy + intelligence = a winning combination. His marriage has rendered him interesting even to country haters. His music being essentially pop-rock has also rendered him palatable even to country haters. What’s not to like, if not love?

Minuses: That niceness thing again. Could we slip him some snarky pills?


Pluses: The residue hasn’t worn off from his having been pretty much the biggest star in the world during the lead-up to the turn of the millennium. He’s garrulous, to say the very least – maybe the most outgoing superstar country has ever produced (and in Dolly Parton’s genre, that’s saying something). Significantly, he likes to stay in one place, as established by his having quit touring for a year-round Vegas residency. Putting down roots for the long term in Hollywood would suit him better than any other country contender.

Minuses: Having retired from record-making, he isn’t as current and relevant a star asproducers would like. Also, what if he turns into Chris Gaines halfway through the season?

STORY: Willie Nelson Statue Unveiled in Austin on 4/20


Pluses: There is literally no one in the world who doesn't like Willie. (We reiterate: No one.) And think of the hair/makeup costs producers would save that could all go toward Mariah's overages. Ponytail wranglers don't cost that much, right?

Minuses: He is a one-man bastion of Zen calm -- and turning Idol into a sea of philosophical tranquility might not be quite the tonal turnaround producers are looking for. There is the age factor: Even if kids know he's the hippest 79-year-old on the planet, they still might not tune in for him after the novelty factor wears off. And could the network possibly dare give a prime-time spot several nights a week to someone who's in all likelihood high? Then again, that's what half of America believed about Paula Abdul, so…

What's your take, Idol Worshipers? Is it time for the show to fully embrace the twang factor? 

Twitter: @chriswillman