Somebody else’s song

One bygone night in a Key West bar, after exactly the right number of gin-and-tonics to polish shame into confidence, I took to the stage. And beneath the not-all-that-bright lights, and guided by the little bouncing ball on a TV on a nearby wall, I sort of held the assembled several, bathed then in the besotted glow of a star being born right in front of them, as I sang the lines to the full version of Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

My wife and a colleague from the Key West paper were there for the entire eight-and-a-half minutes of it; they hid in a dark corner.

I tell you this because I have been among the fallen. I understand.

My name is Frank, and I have done karaoke.

First Arden, then … the world!

Karaoke is, of course, the singing of lyrics to instrumental versions of songs, typically in conjunction with a TV-style prompter displaying the words. Sometimes, there’s a cute “bouncing ball” above what you should be singing; sometimes, the lyrics change colors to cue you.

And let it be said that in the great karaoke scheme of things, I don’t even rate — and nowhere is that made more clear than at ET’s Bar & Grill on the south end of Arden. There, even bartender Debbie Gillon routinely takes the mic, in between slinging Buds and frying up breaded-shrimp baskets; she never even leaves her station.

At ET’s, karaoke is no mere diversion. It’s the law.

Which explains, in part, how the unassuming Arden nightspot has jumped to the forefront of East Coast efforts to send a pair of American karaoke-ists into international battle this summer.

ET’s is an official venue for several Karaoke World Championship U.S.A. competitions (local, state and regional).

“I wanted to have a contest [here],” said Ed Thurmond, who co-owns ET’s with his wife, Trit. “But I didn’t want to have a fly-by-night thing like some places do.”

Not long after buying the karaoke-crazed club earlier this year, the Thurmonds asked local karaoke pro James Hutcherson to help them frame a contest. Hutcherson’s online research led him to the brand-new KWCUSA — the brainchild of co-organizers Frank Davies and Eric Turnbow. The national organization was seeking clubs to sponsor sanctioned competitions.

Since Oct. 4, Hutcherson has hosted five KWCUSA karaoke contests at ET’s open to any bar crooner with diminished inhibitions and $25. Judges, recruited from the local music-and-arts community, follow KWCUSA-set criteria on singers’ rhythm, pitch, phrasing, presence and “entertainment value.”

ET’s four preliminary bouts yielded a total of 22 winners (12 male, 10 female), who then went song-to-song against each other in the local semifinals on Nov. 29.

Semifinalist Cindy Shields came to ET’s all the way from Middletown, Del., after she couldn’t find a closer venue listed on the KWCUSA Web site. The nine-hour drive didn’t phase her. “I love to sing,” she explained.

The semis winnowed the pool of karaoke contenders down to six women (Shields; Shawn Bushovisky, from Flat Rock; Rhonda Hill, Arden; Gena McIntyre, Hendersonville; Jamie Price, Fletcher; and Ginger Scott, Canton) and six men (Bill Hull, from King, near Winston-Salem; Jim Forbes, Hendersonville; Tom Glenn, Morristown, Tenn.; Carl Leach, Arden; Tal Michaels, Fairview; and Mike Mosier, Hendersonville).

ET’s will host three more KWCUSA karaoke competitions on the road to the national championships:

1. The local finals, to be held this Saturday, Dec. 6, producing three male and three female winners. WNC businesses have contributed prizes, the biggie being studio time at Whitewater Recording.

2. The state finals on March 6, yielding three male and three female contenders. This competition will pit ET’s winners against those from BG McGee’s Restaurant and Sports Bar in Greensboro, the only two North Carolina venues to sign up as KWCUSA-competition hosts.

3. The Region 8 finals on April 3. The KWCUSA recognizes 10 regions; ours also includes Virginia, Maryland, West Virginia, Kentucky and Washington, D.C. So far, Kentucky is the only other participating state in Region 8.

The three winning male and female sing-alongers from the regionals move on to the national finals on May 27, tentatively booked at Nickleby’s Restaurant & Lounge in Tumwater, Wash. (KWCUSA organizers are still seeking a venue in their first-choice city — where else? — Las Vegas).

And from the KWCUSA national finals, the ultimate goal: the Karaoke World Championships on July 28-31 in Heinola, Finland. (The bulk of ET’s $25 entry fee goes to KWCUSA, to help pay to get the U.S. winners there.)

Wait … I must have read something wrong

No, you didn’t: Finland. The same snowy land of midnight sun and existential blight that’s also now home to “world championships” in sauna endurance, mobile-phone throwing and wife carrying.

The inaugural Karaoke World Championships, held only last year in Heinola, hosted more than 70 competitors and a crowd of about 500, according to a Reuters News Agency story on the event.

Both the top male and female winners were Brits. The biggest cheers, however, reportedly went to a Polish guy who attempted to strip while on stage, and then started climbing on support beams like some karaoke Bono.

Seven countries in all took part. But not the United States — this will be our first year. And not Japan — which declined outright, citing the Fins’ lack of a true karaoke history, the Nordic poseurs.

The KWCUSA Web site suggests that 16 countries will be represented at the 2004 event, including South Africa. And Latvia.

You can’t make this stuff up.

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