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Singing Their Hearts Out A Karaoke Contest Draws Amateurs Eager To Win A Trip To Nashville

Shane Musselwhite, wearing a tight tank top and an Atlanta Braves cap with a curved bill, hunched over and tried to give his best impression of Alan Jackson. He clutched a microphone in both hands like it was one of his landscaping lawn rakes. He didn't think about the audience. All he could see was silhouetted cowboys because of the bright light. He thought about his 7-year-old daughter, Shenna, the blond-haired girl who inspires him, as he sang Jackson's "Between the Devil and Me."

The gates of Hell 

Swing open wide 

She's all I see 

between the Devil and me. 

Musselwhite finished, disappeared into the clapping crowd and hoped for the best. He wants to grab the Triad's biggest prize in karaoke: a chance to visit Nashville, Tenn., during the biggest event for any country music fan.

"I'd love to go to Nashville, to succeed and excel, but hell, I'll be honest: I just like to sing," said Musselwhite, 29, a landscaper from Ramseur. "It helps me express my feelings."

For eight years, singers have come to Riders in the Country during its karaoke night to shed their work-a-day personality. They have jumped into someone else's skin and forgotten about divorces, disappointments and life's other problems in front of Riders' hand- painted sign.

But the Nashville contest, which began in March, has drawn a crowd. John Dean, who helped create the contest with Riders' owner, George Rider, has had so many contestants he has had to turn some away every Thursday.

On May 18th, the Finals will be held...28 singers - 14 men and 14 women - will compete to win an all- expenses-paid trip for two to Nashville's Fan Fair, a five-day event in June when fans can meet their favorite country performers.

The trip includes transportation from Royal Tours of Randleman, five nights of lodging and tickets to 30 hours of stage shows at the Ryman Theatre, the Country Music Hall of Fame and other exhibition areas. Total cost: $1,100.

It's a trip that many contestants say they can't afford without help from Riders. But it's more than that. The trip will take them to Nashville. For them, that city is the Promised Land.

"A lot of people want to be professional singers, and this is the closest they can get," said Dean, owner of Karaoke World Entertainment and called by some the Triad's "King of Karaoke."

"But to go to Nashville, that's a dream. They get to be in the town where it's all happening. And who knows? They could pass along a tape to somebody and become a star."

Ride down Randleman Road long enough, and you'll run into Riders in the Country. 

It's 12 miles from U.S. 85 in a small neon oasis along a dark, two- lane road. Riders straddles the line separating Guilford and Randolph counties. It sits across the street from the County Line Package Store Tobacco Outlet, a small place that advertises snuff on one sign and proclaims on another: "We Fixed the Cooler! Our Brew Is a Cool 32."

Walk past the pickup trucks, the older model American sedans and the few Harley Davidson motorcycles parked near the door. Pass through a weathered wooden door, and you enter a 7,500-square-foot building decorated in bar room elegance: glowing beer signs, twinkling red lights, NASCAR cardboard cutouts, dark wood and two sets of American and Confederate flags hanging side by side.

The smell of Sunday afternoon baseball often mingles with the cigarette smoke. Hot dogs and buns sit in a steamer in the back of the bar beside two tables full of chili, coal slaw, ketchup, mustard, salsa and a deep bowl of fresh tortilla chips. Patrons eat for free.

Last Thursday, disc jockey Bryce Wilson and the night's host, Steve McGuire, got ready for the night's contests inside a raised, pentagon-shaped DJ booth. Singers circling the booth flipped through notebooks thick with more than more than 1,000 song titles they can sing.

Tim Geise, 43, a home health nurse from Burlington, was one of them. He won one of Riders' Nashville preliminaries a month ago. Geise, a large, stout man who started doing karaoke three years, won by singing Vince Gill's "If You Have Forever in Mind."

"You come here, and you can let loose," Geise said. "Then you're in your own little world." 

So is Sarah Hamby, a woman with long brown hair and an earring through her right eyebrow. A year ago, her mother coaxed her to sing karaoke. Her hands shook, and she broke into a sweat when she stepped on stage. But loved it. She realized she was addicted to karaoke.

Now, she visits at least six Triad clubs to sing karaoke. She sings so much some of her acquaintances on her off-duty job as a security officer call her "Karaoke Cop."

One of her regular stops is Riders. And like Geise, she won one of the club's Nashville preliminaries by singing Sheryl Crow's "Sweet Child of Mine."

"I'm a single parent, I have two ex-husbands - I feel like I've lost everything I had, and my little girl is all I've got," said Hamby, 23, a Greensboro resident who is raising a 3-year-old girl and working as a security officer for Koury Corp.

"This is what I want to do. I'd like to be Martina McBride, although I may have too many tattoos for that. I just want to hear someone say, 'Hey, you're pretty good.'

It's 11:15 p.m. 

McGuire walks onto the dance floor with a portable microphone. He paces like a pro wrestler underneath the ceiling of black lights. With his beige-and-white collar shirt glowing, he turns into the ringmaster of Thursday night's singing circus.

"It's good to be back in Riders in the Country!" McGuire shouts. "If you're feeling good, give me a 'Hell, yea!' " 

"Hell, yea!" the crowd shouts back. 

The crowd of about 100 people was not as large as at previous preliminaries. People hung around the dance floor and the back bar near the pool table, waiting to see who wanted to be the next Tim McGraw or Martina McBride.

Bill Hoffner, a 68-year-old retired mill worker, was one of them. He stood near the bar, decked out in one of his seven Riders' outfits. He was wearing a brown Stetson hat, a brown vest, a black bolo tie with a silver boot clasp and a horse belt buckle as big as a saucer.

People at Riders call him "Cowboy." 

"It's all right, I reckon," Hoffner said of the karaoke singers. "It's country. And that's good for me because it's easy to dance to. It gives me a chance to dance with all these different girls."

Twenty contestants - 10 men, 10 women - are allowed to compete each Thursday. But on the 13th Thursday of the contest, only a handful of contestants showed up. They stepped onstage, watched song lyrics scroll across a small TV screen and belted out their best renditions of country classics.

By 12:30 a.m., McGuire announced the winners. One was a 23-year- old secretary called "Little Bit" by friends and family. The other was Musselwhite. When he heard his name, he pointed at the crowd, tipped his Braves' baseball cap and mouthed, "Thank you very much."

The Greensboro News & Record 



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