As "Nashville Star" premieres this week on NBC, Shawn Mayer of Iowa is still alive among the top-12 music acts vying for the season's coveted win, a recording contract with Warner Bros. Nashville and the opportunity to perform on the world's stage this summer at the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing.
"I would say to watch out for me," she said during a telephone interview from Nashville. "But, actually, each person in this competition has their own little uniqueness to bring to the table; so it's really hard to say (who will win). Right now, it's an open game. I think anybody has a great opportunity of winning this competition."
The 21-year-old has a "hometown" story like no others competing this year.
Mayer now calls the unincorporated town of May City, population 45, home. According to the biography distributed by a Nashville public relations firm, Mayer skipped lunch at school (Hartley-Melvin-Sanborn) to avoid having to sit alone. Unlike her classmates, Shawn was spending her weekends earning money by performing in bars and not hanging out at the mall. Her parents (Mark and Shandra Mayer) encouraged her to make her own way, and she rewarded them by hiring them to be part of her team as she pursued her dreams.
"She's worked on a hog farm, is a mechanic and a volunteer firefighter; but the girl really just wants to be on a stage," her bio reads.
Mayer, whose gift was first recognized by friends and family members as she sang at different church and school functions, started formally singing about eight years ago. While helping her dad with his race car, the then-teenager would sing the national anthem as a way to "pay for the pit pass."
The owner of JR's, a bar and restaurant on Melvin's main street, spurred on Mayer's dream of singing professionally next when she asked if the young woman would like to sing in between sets of an entertainer she'd already booked.
"She went up and sang and some other bar owners heard her," Mark Mayer recalled. "The next thing we knew, we were borrowing some equipment, and it's been word of mouth from then on."
The singer with a "soulful edge to her country" performed the national anthem prior to Lynyrd Skynyrd's performance at the Clay County Fair in 2002. Mayer has also graced the same stage as Martina McBride, Trick Pony, Ricochet, Brad Paisley, Chris Cagle, Sammy Kershaw "and a whole bunch of others down in Nashville," said her father, who admits he "can't keep them all straight anymore."
While Mark Mayer acknowledged every parent thinks their child is gifted, the humble dad of two daughters said of their youngest, "I really didn't realize how good she was until we went to Tennessee the first time, about six or seven years ago. She was 14 or 15 when we got invited down there. She wasn't old enough to get in the bars at night, but some agent heard her singing on the street and got her in. We knew then that she was good, because there are 50 Shawn Mayers on every street corner down there just looking for that opportunity. There is so much talent that never gets exposed; she's one of the lucky ones."
Since moving to Madison, a neighborhood of the city of Nashville, in October, Mayer has regularly performed four- to nine-hour sets Monday through Saturday at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge in downtown Nashville. In addition, she plays at the airport and at the Nashville Palace, located across from Opryland Hotel.
Among the over 45,000 people who auditioned for a top spot on "Nashville Star," Mayer joined a massive crowd of people trying out in late March in Nashville. Not planning to audition herself, though, she had agreed to stand in line with her friend, Jeremy Miller of Ohio, a professional bullrider, and keep him company. By the time they'd reached the door over nine hours later, Mayer was coaxed by Miller and her mother to try out. She sang George Jones' song, "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
"They said it would be two to three weeks (before she'd find anything out). But in less than four days they had called her back and said she was in the semifinals," Mark Mayer relayed. "She had to go back to do another take. Then, they said it would be another three weeks; but they called her back the next day. She knew then that she was in the finals."
"They thought I had an original style," Mayer said of the judges she performed in front of during the semifinal round. "I have my own voice, and they seemed pretty pleased with it."
The songstress, meanwhile, described the process she's embarked upon to date as being "very, very stressful."
"There's a lot of phenomenal talent on this year's show," the vocalist said. "It's been an all-around good experience. We all get along and we're kind of like a tight, close family right now... it's going to be really sad when people have to start going home."
Mayer and the 11 other "Nashville Star" finalists sang their hearts out during the "Nashville Star" premiere, having to impress the show's judges in order to move onto the next round. Hosted by Billy Ray Cyrus, judges for season six include John Rich, singer, songwriter, producer and half of the award-winning country duo Big & Rich; Jewel, multi-platinum singer/songwriter and three-time Grammy nominee; and Jeffrey Steele, hit-making producer and award-winning songwriter.
Mayer plans to show her guitar playing skills in a future episode.
"I'm a little nervous," she admitted. "But I really think I have a lot for America to relate to. So, I'm just kind of hoping they see that."
Subsequent episodes of "Nashville Star," which will be live and in front of an audience at the Acuff Theater in Nashville, will allow show watchers to decide who will return to the stage the following week and who will pack their guitars and head home.
In preparation, Mayer said she's "drinking lots of water and trying to get as much sleep as possible."
Shawn now has an escort and bodyguard who accompany her everywhere
"No matter where the show takes me, I am still a small-town girl. I'm just like everybody else, and I definitely will not forget where I come from," she says.