Cdn going Strong on 'Nashville Star'

Dani Strong is on her way to Nashville. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun)

Dani Strong is on her way to Nashville. (Veronica Henri/Toronto Sun)

-- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 2:14 PM ET

Dani Strong knew right away that she didn't quite fit in.

"Definitely my accent," she chuckles. "Everybody was so Southern. I figured I'm going to get tossed out for not having a Southern drawl."

Instead, the singer-songwriter from Newmarket has just learned that out of 20,000 contestants, she is one of 56 finalists and the only Canadian to make it to next week's regional finals for Nashville Star, country music's equivalent of American Idol.

Which is all pretty exciting for a 24-year-old songbird who hates reality TV and calls the Idol shows little more than "karaoke contests."

"I've always been against these," the outspoken Strong admits sheepishly over lunch, "but I always said that if I did one of them, I'd do Nashville Star -- they actually encourage you to play music and they encourage you to write your own songs."

It was on a whim that she went down to Indiana last month to line up with hundreds of other hopefuls and try her luck. She had just 30 seconds to impress the producers but it was enough to get her a call back the next day. She was then sent home to Newmarket to wait by the phone.

'LUCKY 56'

The call came a very long six weeks later -- Strong had beaten out thousands of contestants to become one of the "lucky 56" finalists. Next Friday, she will perform in front of a live audience in Nashville in a bid to become one of the final 10. The five men and five women chosen will appear on the fifth season of the show which begins Jan. 11 on USA Network with Jewel as co-host.

"I just want to get there so bad. I've never been to Nashville, I've never been out of Canada until last winter," she says, her voice a ripple of excitement. "I'm not scared, though. I don't know why."

Perhaps because Strong has been singing "forever" and writing songs since she was 13. When she is not teaching guitar to kids, she is performing gigs around the GTA. She says she loves all genres of music -- she even started out as a rocker -- but her heart is in country.

At the regional finals, she plans to sing What Hurts the Most by Rascal Flatts and Pumpkin, a touching song she wrote for her dad when she was a struggling York University music student without enough money to buy him a Father's Day gift.

Now the Lake Simcoe boat salesman will be in the Nashville audience next week cheering her on. "I just know I can't look at my dad," she says, "because if I see him crying, I'll lose it."

She promised him that she was going to be a star when she decided to drop out of university in 2002. But there was another reason why she had to leave school -- she was reeling from the sudden death of her best friend from meningitis. "I kept saying I was okay, but I wasn't," she recalls.

Since then, Strong has been pursuing her dream -- in her friend's memory. People tell her she sounds like a young Sheryl Crow while others wonder whether she'll be the next Shania Twain -- all of which makes her laugh once again. "I think Shania Twain is unbelievable and a massive inspiration but I don't think of her as a country artist.

"I don't want to be the next anybody," she adds. "That's what I try and avoid."

She knows the industry well enough to understand that it doesn't hurt that she's an attractive blond. But she is also adamant about being true to herself. That's why she's not willing to get rid of her lip ring -- or enhance parts of her body.

She was just 18 when a few shady men in suits offered her a record deal. It sounded great, until they got to the fine print. "They told me I needed a boob job. I turned it down."

Now she has a real chance at making it big. Other Canadians have done well on these American talent contests -- from Lukas Rossi of Rock star: Supernova to J.D. Fortune of Rock Star: INXS. Canadian George Canyon, a 2004 Nashville Star finalist, went on to win Male Artist of the Year and Single of the Year at the Canadian Country Music Awards.

'I HAVE WHAT IT TAKES'

"I just want to get on that stage," Strong says. "I know I have what it takes."

She certainly has talent, looks and a great sense of humour. And then there's her Canadian edge. Nashville Star asked her to film a typical day in her life -- so she naturally took her video camera to a hockey game.

"I'm a hardcore Leaf fan," she says.

And there are certainly not too many of those among her fellow contestants.

Strong has also spent these last frenzied days before she heads to Nashville filling out pages of background checks for the show, including listing every possible traffic citation she's ever had. "They want to make sure we don't have any skeletons in our closet."

The final question on the multitude of forms asks if there's anything in her background that would be an embarrassment to her, the producers or the talent show.

And actually, Strong smiles, there is.

"I wrote that I was the best belcher in my high school," she says with pride. "I can do anything in a burp."


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