Jewel, <EM>Nashville Star</EM> Jewel, Nashville Star

While a certain Fox powerhouse hopes to take over TV with the premiere of its new season next week, country-music fans can welcome Season 5 of USA Network's Nashville Star tonight at 10 pm/ET, tuning in to see a fresh batch of established musicians trying to get their big breaks (no William Hungs here). The 10 new contestants — who all play at least one instrument and have been performing on stage for years already — will secure their cowboy hats and show off their skills to compete for a record deal with one of RCA's three country labels.

And with a brand-new set of singers comes a new host. Three-time Grammy nominee Jewel will take the reins this season with some help from country rapper Cowboy Troy, who cohosted with Wynonna Judd last year. Jewel is definitely pleased to have a Cowboy by her side. "Troy's great," she tells TVGuide.com. "This is a different format than I'm used to, reading off of teleprompters and doing intros and exits, and he's been really helpful."

While talking to viewers at home might be a change for her, Jewel's no stranger to a true talent search. She conducted her own regional competition called Soul City Café, from which the winner accompanied Jewel on her 2002 tour. Later becoming a fan of Nashville Star, she inquired about being a guest judge on Season 4, but the panel was already set by then. So the Alaska-raised singer/songwriter is excited about being a part of the show this year. She even had some input on the unique changes that were added this round, like inviting contestants to her Texas ranch so that she could bond with the up-and-comers in an environment away from the Star stage. "She's going to be a mentor and get involved, which we think is such a cool element [to bring to] the show," executive producer Ben Silverman tells us. "The show continues to evolve, and we're so thrilled to have Jewel, who represents the class of the [country] field."

Another positive shift this year is the judges. Along with music-industry pro Anastasia Brown, two country stars will join the panel: Alabama lead singer Randy Owen, whose band has sold close to 80 million albums, and hot country act Blake Shelton. "We have such an arsenal of creative and marketplace powers," notes executive producer Howard Owens. "It's a real testament to how we've been accepted by the country-music community" — a community that is probably the healthiest music genre out there, adds Jewel. She believes that's why we're seeing so many pop and rock musicians (such as Bon Jovi) head into the country market. All in all, it's hard to make it in the music industry, and Jewel — who lived in her car before finally getting her first gig in a California coffeehouse — knows that firsthand. When asked by young wannabes about how to be heard, she tells them to either schmooze and network at all the right parties, or do what she did and "be the best you can be and trust that the cream will rise to the top."

Although she'll be working on her next album in Nashville while she hosts the acclaimed talent show, there haven't been any plans set for Jewel to duet with any of the contestants — which include siblings Zac and Angela Hacker, who auditioned independently and reunited on the show. But she's hoping to "hang out and jam" with the musicians at some point. That, hopefully, is something viewers can see during the footage taken at Jewel's ranch, a home she shares with longtime rodeo-star boyfriend Ty Murray. You might even catch a glimpse of Murray supporting Jewel and the competitors from the audience. "Ty hardly ever watches TV, but I'm sure he'll come [to Nashville] and start picking his favorites," the songstress offers.

Ty and the rest of America will have to choose favorites if they want to continue seeing them on stage. After all, the fates of these musicians' careers are in the hands of the public — a very different road to the top than Jewel experienced. She did have her chance at getting her music heard via reality stardom, though, when The Real World recruited her during its infant stage, but she didn't want to live with seven strangers just to be on MTV. That said, she views Star differently — as a more sophisticated reality realm that produces legitimate artists. "I didn't have something like Nashville Star as a vehicle to come up through," she notes. "And there are very few people sticking up for artists being authentic. Nashville Star is helping [give a voice to] artists who may not [be trendy]. And America gets to speak and say, 'This is something we like.'"

Hoping America will tune in and vote, the producers have faith in the experienced finalists after conducting their biggest search ever, according to Silverman, who, along with Owens, came up with the tagline "Where the Talent Is Real" back when the show was first created. Let's see if it still holds true.

Reality-TV fans, get the latest on Ryan Seacrest's new venture, and a look at "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin's final foray, in the Jan. 15 issue of TV Guide, now on newsstands.

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