A View From the Judges Table: Week Seven of The Shiner Rising Star Contest.

In yet another, suburban location outside of Dallas proper--this time at Plano's Last Chance Saloon--independent country music, in its myriad forms, reigned supreme.

A couple of hundred folks (if not a tad more) crammed themselves into the Last Chance Saloon for Week Seven of the Shiner Rising Star competition last night, which, again, was hosted by KHYI-95.3 FM The Range, The Range and, of course, Shiner Bock Beer.

Joining me at the judges table last night was Brett Dillon, the veteran afternoon-drive DJ from KHYI, and Merrol Ray, a previous winner of the Shiner prize himself. And the three bands that performed last night continued a trend that has been as consistent as it has been enlightening: Each of the acts vying for a spot in the competition's semi-finals represented a different corner of the country universe than the other bands taking the stage with them.

In what was likely the most evenly matched night of the first round thus far, The Brandon Steadman Band, Chet O'Keefe and The Will Callers each made a solid case for why their guitar cases should have a second-round sticker on them--not that there is such a sticker, but work with me here, people.

Arlington's Brandon Steadman Band showed off a few strengths to get the night rolling. The lock-step rhythm section and the lead guitar playing of Jorge Rodriguez were both something to behold. Unfortunately, the wall of sound that emanated from the lead guitar suffocated Steadman's vocals for the entirety of their first song, completely masking the strength of Steadman's solid, modern country songwriting. While their choice of a cover tune, The Beatles' "Come Together," was a decent enough choice, it ended up seeming fairly generic by the end of the night, thanks to a couple of unique and unexpected choices by the following acts.

As has been noted in previous weeks, it's a tough thing to be the first band of the night in this competition. But, for each of the elements that seemed to create an uneven feel for Steadman's set, there were easily as many sterling qualities that also proved to be memorable.

There are many interesting aspects that pertain to the variety showcased in this competition. A case in point from last night would be how the folk and roots-based stylings of Nashville resident Chet O'Keefe would hold up to the electrified rock of the band before him. Cranking up the vibe of a room isn't half as daunting as toning it down, especially when many more beers have been consumed by the reveling throng.

Turns out, though, if you can write captivating songs where the vivid lyrics do the heavy lifting and the crack-band backing you knows exactly what to do and how to sound at all times, then quieting a rowdy crowd isn't such a hard task after all. O'Keefe, who has toiled in Nashville for a while now, employed his warm vocal to tremendous effect, while showing off a range of self-penned songs. His cover of Gram Parsons' "Ooh Las Vegas" was nothing short of genius--not only because it was a great choice, but because the interpretation was simply brilliant. The title track from his latest, independently released album, Game Bird, was also brilliant in its ability to force most in the room to set their drink down and really try to get what O'Keefe was giving.

The Will Callers, yet another group from Fort Worth to make an impactful impression on this contest, seemed quite comfortable in its role of show-closer. Lead singer Jake Murphy possessed every ounce of boyishly swaggerific charisma that his practical doppelganger, Rhett Miller, oozes at every performance. Again, the combination of inspired cover song, Buddy Miller's "Hole in My Head," and a brand-new, inventive original, "Eighty Seven Miles to Austin," proved to be a recipe for a successful set.

Again, the contrast that their rockabilly bravado offered to the previous, listening-room vibe of O'Keefe was welcome, as the entire four-piece more than capably manned their respective stations. While O'Keefe has established himself as the favorite of the night, The Will Callers made it clear that it was way too early to crown a winner.

That point had been hammered home, too: The Will Callers earned the votes to move on to the semi-finals and are now one step closer to that coveted recording contract with Shiner Records.

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