AITKIN -- Christi Clark and Brenda Laird didn't come back from Nashville with a record contract. But they did come back with a fresh perspective on the music business. And they are more determined than ever to someday nab that major label deal.
Aitkin club hoppers have had a front-row seat to the rising talent of Clark and Laird, who have comprised the singing duo bordertown ever since they met at the Woodtick Bar in Cuyuna in 1996.
They came from different musical backgrounds: California native Clark was singing before she could speak, while Hastings native Laird kept her voice hidden as a youngster. By the mid-1990s, both were regulars on the Aitkin area karaoke scene, and they both did fine versions of the Linda Davis and Reba McIntyre duet "Does He Love You."
"Someone mentioned that we should sing together," Clark said. "I said, 'I do Linda,' and asked Brenda what part she sang."
"I said, 'I do Reba,'" Laird said.
Their music dreams have followed the same path ever since. In addition to leading karaoke nights every other Friday at the 40 Club in Aitkin (the next event is 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. June 27), bordertown also has performed as a duo at various gigs, most recently at the Aitkin Graduation Blast earlier this month.
They've won prize money in a number of competitions, most notably taking fifth place in the regional Colgate Country Showdown in 2000. (This year's event takes place June 26 at the Blue Goose in Garrison.)
At the end of May, they decided to go for the biggest prize of all, a Nashville recording contract.
"Sometimes I think, 'Maybe we aren't good enough,'" Clark said in a recent interview at the 40 Club. "But then you hear people say, 'You should go to Nashville.'"
Clark counts Brad and Molly Dox, owners of the 40 Club who provided financial backing for new karaoke equipment, among bordertown's biggest supporters.
"We always wanted to take the next step to get our career moving forward, but we knew it wasn't going to fall in our lap," said Laird, who has a day job as an office manager.
Clark and Laird drove down to Nashville to participate in a talent search. They hit the stage for five days straight, singing for talent scouts and managers. They were surprised to find that the talent search became more of a teaching experience than a learning experience, as they were among the most seasoned singers at the event.
"We realized that we know more than we thought we did. Everyone there was wet behind the ears," Laird said. Many of the singers there were from the upper Midwest, so Laird and Clark got a chance to talk shop with others who have forged music careers in isolated areas.
"We came back with even more aspirations than when we left," Laird said.
bordertown did get recording offers at the event, but they haven't followed up on any of them out of concerns over the legitimacy of the offers.
"We talked to some artists who had recorded albums, and we asked them how much their deal was for," Clark said. "They said, 'Oh, I paid them $20,000.' Well, that's not really how it should be."
The Nashville trip provided plenty of surprises for the duo. Once the thriving center of country and bluegrass music, Nashville has been criticized for eschewing substance for style in recent years, witnessed by chart-toppers like Shania Twain and Kenny Chesney.
The city's reputation as a country Mecca is still strong, but when you actually go there, you get a different impression, Clark said.
"It's not what it could be," she said. "We explored all of the city and there's such a variety now. You walk down the strip and you see country here, heavy metal over there, Goth over there. We stopped in a few clubs and the music was only OK. You expect to walk into a bar and hear phenomenal people."
Clark and Laird believe that country and pop music's obsession with image may soon be a thing of the past thanks to the popular Fox talent show "American Idol." For years, record companies have defended their hyping of manufactured pop acts with the argument: "Hey, that's what people want." Now the people are starting to tell them differently, Clark said.
"I'm glad we have 'American Idol.' (Last year's winner) Kelly Clarkson is not the typical all-American beauty. If she would have walked into a record company, she would've been tossed out. Same with (this year's winner) Ruben Studdard and (third-place finisher) Kimberly Locke. 'American Idol' is about what America thinks, so it shows record companies that all ages, all sizes have just as much of a shot."
"When you go to buy an album, you look for songs," Clark said. "Image can help, but it's not a basis for success. Even with Shania, people liked her before they knew what she looked like."
Ironically, the fact that scouts weren't looking for an image may have hurt bordertown at the talent search. In addition to their great voices, they like to augment their live shows with costumes and on-stage banter. At the talent search, Clark and Laird were surprised that scouts were looking mostly for singer-songwriters and instrument players.
"Our stage presence is our instrument," said Laird.
"We're a Branson act," Clark said, referring to the Missouri tourist trap known for its appeal to older audiences.
Hmmm. Maybe bordertown just has to wait a few decades for big-ticket success.
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