My Kind of Country review – finally, a music competition show with real heart

For those of you – for those of us – who have been broken on the wheel of secondhand embarrassment over the last few hundred years (or whenever reality TV and singing etc competitions began), My Kind of Country will come as balm to the soul. All the contestants have the goods: they can sing, they can play, they can perform and have in many cases years of experience under their belts. And the judges (country singer-songwriters Jimmie Allen, Mickey Guyton and Orville Peck), who have scouted and champion four contestants each, are there to help not humiliate them. The relief is tremendous, even if you do have to hear an awful lot about hopes, dreams, journeys and other guff.

Nevermind. It’s worth it, overall. The show – executive produced by Reese Witherspoon and country star Kacey Musgraves – is designed to find country singers who do not fit the traditional Nashville mould. Allen and Guyton, who are both Black, each auditioned for American Idol early in their careers but were cut before the voting rounds and have had to negotiate the intangible barriers that stood between them and mainstream success. Peck, a gay South African musician, has had his troubles within a notably conservative and white genre, too.

Each of the original dozen contestants first prepares a cover of a song that “means something” to them, under the expert guidance of wunderkind producer Adam Blackstone (musical director to just about every A-list star you can think of) before performing it at The 5 Spot, one of Nashville’s oldest and most steeped-in-history venues, for the judging trio. One weakness common to all reality shows that not even this high-class effort overcomes is that we don’t get to see nearly enough of their expert guidance. Why not? What could be more fascinating than watching a master of his craft work with a newcomer and teach them how to be … better? We get tiny moments, such as when Blackstone steps forward to advise Justin, a charismatic South African singer and guitarist, to “take it half a step up from A minor”, and they look at each other and grin in wordless recognition of the wisdom of what he has just said. How can you not want to see more and dig down into that?

After the showcases (when one contestant, usually, is sent home), the remainder take part in further workshops and elimination rounds. Allen leads a collaboration session where they all have to work with each other, to teach them that no musician is an island. Guyton hosts a performance workshop with creative director Jemel McWilliams and Peck runs a visual storytelling class in which a professional production designer helps them create their own sets to reflect their particular artistry and – yes, they’ve softened me up so much I’m going to say it – vision.

The “diverse” contestants do seem to be drawn mainly from the US and South Africa (though I could listen to the beautiful voice of shy Dhruv Visvanath from New Delhi, which seems to envelop you in velvety folds, just about for ever), but it’s fair to say that they would all have trad Nashville reaching for the whiskey if they turned up at the Grand Ole Opry. My Kind of Country feels like it has a genuinely good heart and that, win or lose the competition, it will have done all the participants some equally genuine good.

  • My Kind of Country is on Apple TV+