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A Bandtastic Voyage

Ahead of Friday's ''Next Great American Band'' finale, Sixwire, Mile High Orchestra, and The Clark Brothers reflected back on their toughest moment on the show and life before they captured the prime-time spotlight

THE CLARK BROTHERS
Image credit: Frank Micelotta
THE CLARK BROTHERS

It's time for the ultimate band showdown — Idol style! After eight weeks of competition, during which judges Johnny Rzeznik, Sheila E., and Aussie Idol's Ian ''Dicko'' Dickson certainly got their fill of rock (and metal — long live Light of Doom!), three groups remain for Friday night's finale of Fox's Next Great American Band: country five-piece Sixwire, the 12-member horn ensemble Denver and the Mile High Orchestra, and the bluegrass-tinged sibling trio The Clark Brothers. Funny enough, they all reside in Nashville and each has their own unique Idol past. Read on for all you need to know about the final three.

On life before the show...

Andy Childs (Sixwire): We were signed to Warner Bros. Records in 2002. We did one album and it just didn't go very well. So when that was over, we took some time to think about what we wanted to do next, trying to determine how to go to battle. We already had a major label deal and it didn't go the way we wanted it to, so we had to find some other avenue. And we were finishing a new project on our own, realizing that the music business is changing and sometimes it takes something else to get you enough exposure to re-launch a group, album, or career. So when we heard about the show, we decided to submit a tape and thought, ''If we could just get on for a few weeks, the exposure might be the catalyst that we needed to get started.'' I don't think we had any idea we'd make it to the end.

Austin Clark (The Clark Brothers): I try not to think about it because it was so traumatic. Where do we start? Our dad was an evangelist and we [had a family band called The Clark Family Experience]. We were raised in tent revivals, on the road in the back of a truck playing to 2000-seat tents. We got signed to Curb Records and had a single out but wanted to evolve. We weren't really allowed to do our own records or have a say in anything, so we went to court for two years and finally won. Once that was over, we all went our own separate ways. And then three of us slowly migrated back to Nashville and got gigs playing with other artists.
Ashley Clark (The Clark Brothers): It was a nightmare, and we were all so young. Austin was just 13. But I bought a truck one day and drove to Nashville, because I knew Austin was living there, and I just showed up at his house and crashed there.
Adam Clark (The Clark Brothers): It's just so crazy. We were all playing for other people in Nashville when we saw the commercial for Next Great American Band and said, ''Let's just make a tape.'' We didn't have bass or drums or anything. We were down in the basement just jamming. And we sent it in on the last day. Next thing you know, they called and asked if we could come out to Vegas and play for the judges. And now we're here in the top three — it's surreal. We pretty much almost gave up on playing music together at all. But now it feels like we've been revived and we're really thankful.

Denver Bierman (Denver and the Mile High Orchestra): We've been an independent band for nine years. We've played a lot of churches in the gospel realm, done some corporate events, and everything from swing dances to playing outdoors in a rodeo arena. You do whatever you can to get as much exposure, and that was the reason we tried out for the show. Even though you get to a place as an indie where you're doing about 100 concerts a year, you kind of hit this wall. And when you have a band of 12 people, it's a lot of ways to split little money, so you need that extra exposure to take it to the next level. What we hope to gain is new fans who'll be devoted, buy every record, and travel three hours to come to the next concert. We're not a flash-in-the-pan, we're not going to be the hottest thing on the radio, and we're okay with that.

On their hardest week...

Childs (Sixwire): For me, it was [Michael McDonald's ''I Keep Forgettin'''] on Leiber and Stoller week. I was sick with bronchitis, going back and forth to the doctor. That morning of the taping, I wasn't sure whether I could sing at all, much less well. But another quick shot at the doctor's and somehow, miraculously, I was able to sing. Even though, when I introduced the song, you can hear my voice crack. When we watched the tape back, I was like, ''It sounds really good.'' It was rough right up until show time, but we went out and really dug into it. Then one of the judges said, ''You guys look like you're just going through the motions.'' So, you never know.

Ashley Clark (The Clark Brothers): Queen [''These Are the Days of our Lives''] was really challenging because we were [encouraged] to use bass and drums, but decided to get rid of the bassist and drummer, after we rehearsed and sound-checked, and keep it us three. It depends on the song. With some, bass and drums really fill it out and it helps. But when it's just the three of us, we can turn any song into our idea.
Austin Clark (The Clark Brothers): We almost went with ''The Show Must Go On,'' but we felt like we were just covering this band, and we don't want to do just straight covers.

Bierman (Denver and the Mile High Orchestra): When we did ''Ruby Baby'' [on Leiber and Stoller week]. We really tried to give a little Maroon 5-meets-big-band feel, and the judges responded really weirdly. They said it was funk music, which shocked me because that's the last thing we were trying. When someone says funk, I think of James Brown. But it was our best performance in terms of playing well and developing an attitude, and it got a terrible response from the judges. They didn't like it at all. So that's when you say to yourself, it's not always about music. We gave the best performance and got the worst reaction — what can we learn from that? It helps toughen our skins a little bit. But for the record, the toughest days out here have nothing to do with music. It's being away from our wives and families.

On their relationship to American Idol...

Childs (Sixwire): Carrie Underwood bought a house on my street and the property value went up, so I thank her for it! Now, if only Chuck [Tilley, drummer] hadn't kept hanging out outside her window, she might still live there (laughs). Because I'm gone so much, I don't get to watch as much TV as I'd like, but I took a real interest in Idol because I have so many friends who are just completely addicted. Last season, they said, ''You have to watch this because of this one guy Sanjaya.'' So I did and saw what they meant. It's something you can't put your finger on. When people watch these shows and vote, they're not thinking about who's the most technically advanced — they watch with feeling. They like you or they don't.

Ashley Clark (The Clark Brothers): I started working for Carrie Underwood a few months after moving to Nashville, and then went on tour with her. When I was coming out here, she texted me saying, ''Congratulations, I know you guys are going to do great.'' She's been so busy but is really supportive. Not like she put in a call for us or anything, since that might give us an upper hand. We're still pinching ourselves that we're even here.

Bierman (Denver and the Mile High Orchestra): Melinda Doolittle and I went to college together, and I've also known Mandisa for a long time. She and I have sung together on different gospel events before she went on the show. But at Belmont University, we'd have these swing dances after a big homecoming event, and Melinda actually used to open for our band. She recorded some of my songs and she and I were very good friends. I still talk to Melinda. She's on the Michael W. Smith Christmas tour right now, and votes for us like crazy. In between acts, she'll be dialing the number away. She's very encouraging, like a proud mom. Both she and Mandisa have been wonderful. But I am an Idol freak. I'm the one who printed up all Melinda's T-shirts that said ''Melinda next American Idol.'' I wear it every once in a while. Represent! My wife loves Carrie Underwood. I really love Taylor Hicks, Kellie Pickler, Daughtry... I'm not a hard rocker, but every time the guy opened his mouth, he had that ''It'' factor. I loved Bo Bice. [Season three] was a great year for Idol — maybe more than other years — because both Bo and Carrie were so endearing. I'm letting all my Idol geekness out now. At home, we even have the red Coca Cola glasses the judges use. They were on sale at Kroeger. I can't wait for it to start in January. My dream is to meet Ryan Seacrest. I'm leaving in a few days, if anyone can make this happen...

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Originally posted Dec 21, 2007