By Terry Kelleher
March 10, 2003 12:00 PM

Twelve amateur country music hopefuls sing their hearts out before a panel of three judges, who along with TV voters will slowly whittle the field down to one. The prize: a recording contract. Sound a little like American Idol? Yep, but there’s one discordant note missing from Nashville Star, a USA Network series premiering March 8. “Thankfully we can say we don’t have a Simon,” says creative consultant Clint Black. The judges, who include singer Charlie Robison, are all “really nice,” he says. “Nobody has to get nasty. It’s cruel enough to say, ‘Hey, I just don’t think you have it.’ ”

Fortunately, Black did. “I got a record deal [with RCA in 1987], then kept singing in nightclubs for two more years before the record came out,” recalls the crooner, whose debut album, Killin’ Time, went triple-platinum. “The big ol’ wheels just grind so slowly. For this winner, it’s going to be immediate.”

Black, in fact, will help produce the winner’s album, to be released a few weeks after the show’s May 3 finale. Until then, he’ll impart his advice to all the contenders in visits to the six-bedroom Nashville house they’re sharing. “You see people on TV being nasty with each other when the tension gets high. I’d like to be able to keep that to a minimum,” he says. “You need to come through this with a good image.”

At 41, Black is pretty image conscious himself. Currently recording a new album at his home studio in the colonial-style Nashville house he shares with his wife, actress-singer Lisa Hartman Black, 46, and 21-month-old daughter Lily, he stays in shape through a regimen of running and racquetball. “Naturally, if I’m standing onstage, I want to feel like I look like myself,” says Black, “not me plus whatever I’ve eaten—or overeaten.” Jennifer Wren