Seabee Instructor Gets a ‘Nashville Star’ Casting Call

Dream awakened

By Scott Hadly – Ventura County Star – April 6, 2009 

Sometimes dreams don’t die, but they do go on life support.  Jeff Ross kept his dreams of a country music career alive for 15 years, but recently he was ready to pull the plug.

“It seems like in the last year I haven’t thought about it as much,” said Ross, a 33-year-old father of two young girls, who teaches sailors how to fix big diesel engines, Humvees, huge military trucks and bulldozers at Naval Base Ventura County.

“For the longest time that’s all I wanted to do. I wanted to play and make it to the big time,” said the military contractor, who spent six years in the Air Force and now works as an instructor at the Construction Battalion Center in Port Hueneme. “Now, I don’t know. Maybe it’s ’cause when you’re not on stage you kind of lose that urge sometimes. I’m not thinking about it anymore.”

But just at the moment when Ross began to let go of his desire to be a country music superstar, his comatose dream got jolted to life: He’s one of 10 finalists picked for the NBC television show “Nashville Star, All-Military Casting Call.”

“It’s pretty exciting,” Ross said.  His wife, Eliza, said she and their two girls – Ellie, 5, and Janie, 3 – are proud of Ross whatever happens.

“We’re behind him 100 percent,” she said. The competition took entries from military bases across the world. Among the 10 finalists are competitors stationed in Afghanistan, one on a base in Japan and another in Bahrain, said Julie Smith, manager for the Navy’s Liberty, Crafts and Hobbies program. The competition was open to members of any service branch, civilian Department of Defense employees and contractors, such as Ross.

“It’s exciting to see such talent in our military family,” said Smith.  This week, Ross will go to Norfolk, Va., where 20 more finalists will be selected from another military casting call on the East Coast. They’ll go head to head against Ross and the other nine Saturday aboard a Navy ship on the base in Norfolk, said Smith.

An as-yet unnamed celebrity host will judge the singers, said Smith. Ultimately, the show’s organizers will winnow down a core group of singers who will compete against one another on the show starting in June.

Anyone familiar with “American Idol” knows the drill. The difference with “Nashville Star,” which previously aired on the Country Music Channel before being picked up by NBC, is that this is a country-themed music competition. There’s also no upper age limit for the contestants, and singing duos and trios can also enter.

The winner will get a recording contract and a chance to sing at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. Country singer Billy Ray Cyrus is set to host the show.

Of course, it’s still a long shot for Ross. He’s been around long enough not to get his hopes up too much, but he’s excited nonetheless.

For a guy who grew up in Porterville, a rural town in California’s Central Valley, playing honky-tonks and county fairs with his band 7 Standing, this is a big deal. But Ross – clean-shaven with sun-burned cheeks, a patch of reddish blond hair under his lip, a pressed black button-up shirt and blue jeans – has seen some of the talent out there. In his early 20s, he’d once gotten up enough grit to head to Nashville on his own and see if he could make it. What he found were some of the most talented people he’d ever seen.

“It was eye-opening,” he said. “There were so many talented people. Going back there I was thinking, if there are this many people who are that good and aren’t making it’ it was a little discouraging in some ways.”

Ross came back, joined the Air Force, hooked up with a buddy from his hometown and started the band 7 Standing. He sang and played guitar, while his friend Mike Owens hammered on the drums and Isaac Nunn played bass. They called their sound “Neo-Western” and had steady gigs, but none of them quit their day jobs.

After Sept.11, Ross shipped out to Qatar. During his deployment, he injured his back while working on a Humvee. The injury eventually forced him out of the Air Force, but the former staff sergeant continued working in the military as a contractor, teaching Seabees how to fix diesel engines. At night, he went to school to get a college degree, and slowly, his music dream took a back seat to a goal of becoming an elementary school teacher and maybe moving out of the family’s small Port Hueneme apartment. His friend, Owens, went back to the Central Valley to go to school to become a prison guard.

Then in February, Ross heard about the casting call, and he went for it.

Show organizers gave him a list of songs to choose from, and he picked Garth Brooks’ soaring “More than a Memory,” nailing it.

This week, KHAY 100.7 disc jockey Scott Alexander, is scheduled to interview Ross and have him sing on the show. The singer also still plans on booking shows in local clubs and bars.

But Ross isn’t counting country gold records in his head. He’s thinking about teaching and maybe moving back to his hometown.

“Music is always going to be a part of my life,” he said.

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