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Photo courtesy of Lauren Ashley

Texaco Country Showdown contestant Lauren Ashley recently graduated from Highland High School.

Nearly a dozen aspiring country singers are ready to take the Bull Shed by the horns Friday at the 32nd Annual Texaco Country Showdown, a nationwide competition that helped make stars of unknowns like Brad Paisley and Miranda Lambert.

But don't tell the capacity cops. The small bar, at Camino del Rio Court and Rosedale Highway, just may bust at the seams trying to contain the contestants, their respective cheering sections and unsuspecting regulars wondering what all the fuss is about.

"The opportunity to go out and see 10 or 11 different acts in one evening doesn't happen," said Kris Winston, program director at 92.1 KIX Country, the radio station hosting the local leg of the competition.

"When you go to a club, you see a band, one or two performers. You don't get to see this buffet. If you're really into music, it's a unique opportunity to sit there."

The call for entries went out to artists a few weeks ago, and Winston said the station received many submissions, via CD, MP3 and videos. Judges not affiliated with KIX selected the group of 11 finalists: JD Hardy, Whitney Wattenbarger, Marc Madewell, Lauren Ashley, Jeff Schmidt, Dillon James, Noah Claunch, Rick McKay, Dan Talbot, Calboy Calvin and Highway Down. Most of the artists are from the area, Winston said.

The judges for Friday night's event are songwriter and producer Steven Sharp; Bakersfield singer Deedra Patrick; and musician Todd Brumley (son of the late Buckaroo great Tom Brumley).

The public, too, will have a chance to be heard, though the popular vote will not affect the judges, who will score the artists on scale of 1 to 10 in the categories of overall talent; marketability in country music; vocal/instrumental ability; originality of performance; and stage presence/charisma. Performers singing original material stand to gain up to another three points if the judges like what they hear.

The winner and runner-up receive cash prizes, but the real perk is advancing to the next phase of competition at Knott's Berry Farm and maybe on from there. The grand prize of the entire contest is $100,000.

Two of the local contestants -- Lauren Ashley and Dillon James -- will be hoping for an edge by singing their own songs at the competition. Though Ashley is just 18 and James 20, both have years of experience playing guitar and writing songs, starting as children.

"I remember the first time I performed," said Ashley, a newly minted Highland High graduate. "It was at American Sound Recording, I was 13, I was playing all my original songs and I got up there and I was just shaking so bad. But my dad was there with me and it made it better. I wasn't always super-confident on stage, but it gets better."

Ashley's poise and determination belie her youth. She convinced respected singer/musician Monty Byrom to produce her CD, has shot three music videos and estimates her songwriting catalog stands at 300 compositions. As a preteen, she had the pluck to contact "American Idol" finalist and Bakersfield resident Amy Adams about teaching her the ropes.

"I heard she was doing vocal lessons, so I called her myself -- I always took the reins, sometimes to my parents' dismay."

She said she values the self-confidence she gained by working with Byrom and Adams, a trait she'll no doubt call upon when she leaves the security of her close-knit family and heads to college in Los Angeles at the end of the summer.

"I'm going to be a music attorney. I like to read about the copyrights and all that and I figured if I'm doing that for my career, why not do it in college."

But to make it to the next round, Ashley will have to outshine 10 others, including Dillon Galanski, who goes by the stage name of Dillon James.

"I'm planning on singing two songs. One is the Darius Rucker song 'Wagon Wheel' and one is mine," said the Ridgeview High graduate. "I thought it would be more fun to play a more peppy, upbeat song that everybody knows. I'll end it with my own, which is kind of a slower, more heartfelt song."

Music, though his first love, is not James' only foray into entertainment. He's up for a part in a Lifetime movie starring Dolly Parton and gets work from time to time as a model.

"My plans are to try to make it onto a major label doing music and move to Nashville."

In the meantime, James will shop around the demo he made after winning another singing competition and work on new material.

"When I first started writing, I wrote because I wanted to try to write. As I got older, it became more of a venting process, if I was bothered or stressed out, or even in happy times. All my songs are pretty much based on experiences in my life."