Awaiting the announcement of the Missouri State Fair Idol winner is like a college basketball team waiting to see if it will be picked for the NCAA tournament — you don’t really know what the key criteria will be until the announcement is made.
Next year’s competitors should take note, though: The judges prize versatility, both in vocal range and in song selection.
Last year’s champion, Nathan Jones, of St. Joseph, impressed with his ability to hit the high notes. And this year’s champion, Ryan Manuel, of Sedalia, likely won because he was able to switch from the deep bass of Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to the softer sound of Chris Knight’s “Cry Lonely” in his first two songs on Sunday at the Budweiser Stage, where he beat out seven other finalists.
Over the course of the competition — from qualifying at Dickie-Doo Bar-B-Que through wowing the packed house at the Bud tent — the 20-year-old Manuel sang seven different songs.
“That’s kind of what I was going for,” Manuel told the Democrat after accepting his trophy. “I didn’t want to repeat any songs. I think that really counts for something if you ask me. I wanted to switch it up and show my range.”
Manuel, who brought the title back to Sedalia for the first time since John Ezell won it in 2007, capped off his three-song set with Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues.”
“I listen to a lot of red-dirt country, a lot of classic country,” said Manuel, a 2009 Smith-Cotton graduate who is working at Wendy’s to earn money to take classes in State Fair Community College’s radiology program.
“I don’t like the new stuff as much, but I do like a lot of the new outlaw stuff. That’s my music background. I have eight years of guitar under my belt, but I have no vocal training whatsoever.”
He dedicated “Working Man Blues” to the hardest-working man he knows — his father, Dean, who sells explosives. But you have to go back a generation before that to find a musician in the Manuel family: Ryan’s grandfather plays guitar.
Manuel has approached the idea of a music career — or even just playing music for fun — with caution.
He said the announcement of his victory “was a very surreal moment, because everyone’s been telling me ‘Go for it,’ and I’ve said, ‘No, probably not. I’m just gonna embarrass myself.’ But it worked out.”
Manuel signed up for Idol simply to meet other musicians. He hadn’t entered the contest before this year.
“I’ve been playing solo acoustic and electric stuff at home,” he said. “I like going and jamming with people. What I intended on doing was coming out here and meeting people that write and play music and maybe start a band. I never thought it would go this far.”
Manuel, the third male to win the title in the event’s six years, now has the honor of opening for the first grandstand act of the 2012 state fair. Not that he’s abandoning his thoughts of being a radiologist, but the idea of a music career is starting to appeal to him.
“That’s really the dream, to go around playing music for people, because I really enjoy it. That’s the most fun I’ve had in years, doing this competition.”
Idol organizers didn’t make the final scores public and didn’t award runner-up prizes, but a judge told the Democrat that the race was tight and that Manuel’s closest competitors were Vicki Walton, of Sedalia; Ashton Faith, of Cole Camp; and Kami Mohn, of Macon.
Walton had the most fair-appropriate song of the day, her original tune “Going Home to Missouri,” which she also performed last year at a Sedalia sesquicentennial event.
Faith, a ballad specialist who was the only returning finalist from last year, showed a lot of improvement in a set highlighted by Alannah Myles’ “Black Velvet.” Faith was the only finalist to leave the stage to sing amidst the crowd.
And Mohn — second only to Faith at working the crowd — shined on Martina McBride’s “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues” and Rebecca Lynn Howard’s “I Don’t Paint Myself into Corners” and “Out Here in the Water.”
Mohn also had perhaps the loudest fan club of the day — they even out-shouted fans of the two Sedalians — and she was the top pick of Idol emcee and organizer Thom Fuller.
Manuel, in fact, suspected Mohn would win as he awaited the final verdict.
“Me and Frank (McCloud, another finalist) talked about it and we thought for sure Kami had won,” Manuel said.
Even those who finished outside the top four had their supporters. Judge and Democrat columnist Travis McMullen said he was impressed by Nathan Tawbush, of Knob Noster, known around these parts as a singer for Rebel Town. But the Alabama native might have gotten too creative: A lull in switching from mandolin to guitar during his opening number, Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” probably cost him stage-presence points.
McCloud, of Bosworth, was able to overcome logistical struggles by using his friend, Vance Bruce, as an accompanist on guitar. McCloud sang a nice original song about his hometown.
Fuller called for the judges to consider giving bonus points to Amy Hamp, of Clinton, who overcame a technical glitch that wasn’t her fault before her third song. She bantered with the crowd about what concerts they had seen at the fair and joked, “You guys didn’t know you were getting the Amy Entertainment Hour up here, did you?”
Jillian Brianna, of Kansas City, certainly played to the beer lovers in the crowd — not a bad gambit under the Bud tent — opening with Miranda Lambert’s “Heart Like Mine” and taking a sip of beer after each song.
Fuller may have just been doing his emcee shtick when he called this the best batch of finalists in Idol’s six years, but it was hard to argue with that on Sunday. There wasn’t a weak link in the bunch. That’s a credit to the new format, where finalists have to prove themselves over the course of two prior rounds and three prior songs. The old format was one preliminary round of one song.
As the judges huddled off-stage and the contestants sweated it out on stage, Bud tent guru Denny Perkins thanked Fuller — who is retiring as Idol organizer — for building this event into one of the fair’s biggest annual attractions.
“Six years ago when we started Idol, we just had the finals in here,” Perkins told the audience. “But now, it doesn’t make any difference what’s going on at the fairgrounds, this show fills this place day after day.”