Q&A: 'CMT's Next Superstar' Judge Matt Serletic

CMT superstar matt serletic trace adkins
John Russell

The veteran producer and former head of Virgin Records talks about finalists Steven Lawson and Matt Mason and how it felt to tell eight others they've been dropped. Says Serletic: "It's not something I relish, but it's part of being an executive in the music industry."

The newest inductee to the ever-growing talent show club is cable TV’s fledgling CMT’s Next Superstar, which combines Top Chef-like challenges (playing for troops returning from Afghanistan, having to win over rowdy bar patrons) with the kind of tear-jerking, heel-kicking performances that come straight out of the American Idol rulebook. 

And it’s no wonder: Idol executive producer Nigel Lythgoe and his son Simon teamed up for this contest, bringing their savvy brand of suck-you-in entertainment to an audience of true country fans -- albeit, a fraction of the size they’re accustomed to.

The concept is a familiar one: 10 would-be stars, ranging in age from 22 to 50, relocate to a mansion in Nashville to attend country music boot camp, during which they’re presented with a new test for every episode (like recording a Johnny Cash song at legendary Sun Studios or doing a photo shoot at Elvis Presley’s Graceland, both in Memphis) and must perform for the judges at the end of each show. The prize? A recording contract with Warner Music Nashville and the opening slot on the CMT fall tour, headlined by Luke Bryan.

What’s different is that until the final episode, which airs tonight on CMT, all eliminations are decided by the panel, which includes perma-judge Matt Serletic, a longtime producer (Matchbox 20, Gloriana, David Cook) and the former head of Virgin Records, who’s now running his own music shop, Emblem, and a rotating cast of experts and fellow artists including Kristin Chenoweth and Trace Adkins.

Matt Mason (left) and Steven Lawson (right)

But even though the viewing public has yet to cast a single vote, somehow, the remaining finalists, 29 year-old Steven Lawson and 25 year-old Matt Mason, turned out to be two good-looking dudes. Of course who prevails, the traditionalist or the more contemporary option, will be America’s call, as judge Serletic explained in a recent chat with THR.

The Hollywood Reporter: When you were first approached about getting involved with the show, what was your initial reaction? Were you into it?

Matt Serletic: It was interesting. I love the idea of finding new talent, however you do it, and the television mechanism -- seeing artists grow and rise to the occasion -- is a medium that actually works because there's a way for the audience to get to know an artist and for the artist to improve. I was interested, and knowing that Simon and Nigel were involved, the show was in great hands. They know how to do it, obviously, with the success of American Idol.

THR: Was there any directive from the Lythgoes concerning Idol?

Serletic: There was definitely a desire to not repeat themselves. The thing that I really like that’s unique to the show is that we change venues every episode. The challenges are always different, but they're centered on what an artist goes through in the real music world: How do you convince radio to play you? How do you make a good video? How do you pose for a photo session that conveys who you are? These are real challenges that if you get wrong in the real world, you're done. I love that about the show. I think it's fundamentally different in that way. There’s a lot more to the competition.

THR: What does it mean for the more traditional A&R and talent discovery route? Is it on its way out?

Serletic: No, I think historically there have always been new ways to find an artist. From seeing somebody in a club traditionally to running across them on YouTube, it's always shifting. But the age-old thing holds true: Is the artist unique? Are they talented? And can they communicate? Can they actually reach an audience and hold their attention? And this is just another way to find out if they can.

THR: What's been the most rewarding part of this experience for you?

Serletic: Watching the contestants grow. They started nervous and a little unsure of themselves, and they're all ending better artists, more confident performers and more aware of what it takes to succeed.

THR: What was the most challenging?  

Serletic: Striking that balance between helping the contestants get better but also being clear about what's wrong. And also trying to get some sense of how the viewers at home feel, whether they agree or disagree with me.

THR: With that in mind, you dish out tough love, almost like you’re the Simon Cowell of the panel.

Serletic: That's funny. I take that as a compliment in the fact that Simon is nothing if not clear, and I think a lot of times very right on with his assessment.

THR: Superstar’s send-off is, “You’ve been dropped from the competition,” which sounds very Donald Trump-like and harsh. How does it feel to deliver that line? Is it something you've had to say a lot in your time as the head of Virgin?

Serletic: Unfortunately. When I first came to Virgin [in 2002], we had to do a major reorganization and I had to layoff about 180 people, a lot of which I did personally because I felt it's the right thing to do. So it's not really something that I relish at all, but it's part of being an executive and being in the music industry. So in reality, it happens a lot. It's not necessarily filmed for broadcast, but those decisions are made everyday in the music industry.

THR: Country is so hot right now, as this year’s Idol winner Scotty McCreery proved. What are his career prospects?

Serletic: His single's is moving up the country charts quite fast, so I think he's got a shot. He certainly has a great traditional country voice. In country music, it's all about the song, so as long as they're finding the right songs that fit and help him connect with the audience, Scotty should do well. I think America being involved in picking him is a good sign. With good material, the guy can have a career.  

THR: You’ve worked with other Idol winners including David Cook, whose new album you produced. What took so long and do you feel like what you both set out to do with This Loud Morning was accomplished?

Serletic: I'm very proud of it, and I think Cook is, too. Why it took as long as it did? He really stepped up his songwriting game and he wrote tons more than he ever had. I think that shows in the final album. The songs are strong, and they’re not all the same type of material. There's an arc to it -- almost a story, with different sides of hope and despair and all the things in between. I think we were successful in taking him to the next level artistically. 

THR: What impressed you most about him?

Serletic: That you put a microphone on that guy and out comes madness. His vocal talent is truly on par with some of the best I've worked with. Beyond what I've done with him, he's proven himself on this album. He deserves to stick around and be an artist of merit.

THR: Like Cook’s season, the two finalists that remain on Superstar, Steven Lawson and Matt Mason, are good looking guys…

Serletic: And both of them have really great voices -- one is more traditional country, the other is more modern country. I think they both deserve a shot, but I'm not sitting here going, "They have to be cute.” It’s more about they have to be talented.

THR: The show has been picked up for a second season, but ratings haven’t exactly been stellar. How do you feel it’s doing?

Serletic: I think it can grow. The format is unique and powerful and it's done right, but just like anything else, it can get better with practice. Hopefully we can grow the viewership, too.