James “Little Tony” Kouns was deciding what to eat for dinner when he received the biggest phone call of his life. Or rather, the fourth such call. “I was out with my girlfriend, at Trader Vic’s, and we were about to order our food,” the 29-year-old Las Vegas resident recalls. “I’d gotten three calls from [bandmate] Jeff [Fairchild] and hadn’t answered my phone—I didn’t want to interrupt my date—and then he called again and I figured something was wrong, so I picked up the phone expecting to hear that somebody was dead. And he says, ‘Tone, we’ve got three hours to get on a plane. You’ve got to go home and pack now. Nashville Star called and they want us back.’ And 60 hours later we’re on national television singing with no sleep.”
The whirlwind turnaround came about when a final-12 contestant on the popular reality TV show—the country music equivalent of American Idol, airing on NBC this year after five seasons on USA—dropped out hours before June 9’s first episode was set to tape. That break landed alternates Third Town, a San Antonio-born vocal trio based in Las Vegas since 2000, on the air, with little time to prepare opening song selection “Elvira” (a No. 1 hit for The Oak Ridge Boys in 1981). No matter; the locals advanced anyway, taking a one-in-11 chance at a Warner Bros. record deal into round two.
“All the other acts got to go in and rehearse with the band over and over again,” Fairchild says. “We just walked in and did it off the cuff, and we’re still here. So that makes us feel pretty proud.”
Kouns, Fairchild, 37, and Tony Mosti, 35, began teaming up way back in 1994, when Fairchild hired the other two for his vocal comedy show. “Whenever the three of us got together, our [vocal] blend was pretty cool, so we’ve stayed together all this time.” In an odd move by country standards, the group relocated from Texas to Las Vegas to follow its dreams, and also found itself in new musical territory. Fairchild works as a Blues Brothers impersonator in Legends in Concert at the Imperial Palace; Kouns plays in tribute bands Love Shack, The Whip Its and The Dynamite Band; and Mosti performs in The Soprano’s Last Supper at the Riviera. Or at least, Mosti did, before he quit to participate in Nashville Star. Kouns and Fairchild have also sacrificed their summer bookings for the opportunity, but none of the three are complaining.
“The more versatile you are the less you have to worry about paying bills, so in Vegas our main goal was to get as much work as possible,” Kouns says. “But we didn’t get into this business to be a frontman for a disco band or a Blues Brothers impersonator or a guy that does dinner shows. We’re here because we’re artists, and we have to make sacrifices to reach our goals and our dreams.”
The members of Third Town concede local country music fans might not be familiar with their music given the group’s Vegas history of booking primarily private functions. “We’re all country to the bone; we all have country roots. But it’s been almost impossible to find country work in Vegas,” Mosti says. “We were just starting to look for a home for that when the Nashville Star thing came up.”
Now, the trio finds itself performing to national television audiences—along with host Billy Ray Cyrus and judges Jewel, John Rich and Jeffrey Steele—and, to hear the three members talk, aiming to bring the top prize back to their adopted hometown.
“Jewel said we were doing a wonderful job … John Rich told us that when Rascal Flatts hears us, they’re gonna freak out … Jeff Steele told us he thought we were amazing,” Fairchild says. “When you have people with that stature giving that kind of feedback, it makes you feel really, really good.” Adds Kouns, “They’re looking for someone they can sell, and there’s lots of that here. But we feel like we have a good shot. We feel like we have the whole package.”
Note: Third Town was eliminated from Nashville Star on Monday night, after performing Alabama’s “Mountain Music.”