By People Staff
Updated August 04, 2008 12:00 AM
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Credit: John Russell/NBC (3)

It’ll be the end of a long, country road for Nashville Star finalists Shawn Mayer, Melissa Lawson and Gabe Garcia when they face the music on Monday’s finale (10 p.m. ET, on NBC). And according to outspoken judge John Rich, two of the three contestants have an edge.

“If you’re asking me as a betting man, I think it’s between Gabe and Melissa,” Rich recently told reporters. But between them, “It’s a horse race. It’s too close to call.”

What makes Garcia and Lawson Rich’s favorites? “Gabe and Melissa, without a doubt, are in my opinion vocally head and shoulders above Shawn Mayer,” he says. But that’s not all. “I also think their stories are really, really compelling.”

Lawson, a mother of five sons who’s lost more than 40 lbs. since she auditioned for the show, is “so representative of a lot of our listeners in country music,” Rich says. “You could record some great songs with her that speak to her life and would connect with millions and millions of Americans.”

As for Garcia, from San Antonio, Texas, Rich points to his Hispanic heritage as an advantage. “Hispanic are the fasting growing sector of our society,” explains Rich, who is also a Texan. “I grew up in that neighborhood … Some of my childhood friends were Mexican kids I grew up with and went to school with everyday, and I know we haven’t had a bridge to that community in the U.S. in a long, long time.”

While Garcia and Lawson are his picks to win Nashville Star, Rich isn’t saying that Mayer isn’t capable of being a successful country singer. “I have no doubt that Shawn Mayer and I can go into the studio and cut a hit record,” he says. “She is a walking dichotomy, like a lot of country singers. She says, ‘I’m the toughest girl you’ll ever meet,’ and then cry at the drop of a hat … That’s something country fans can relate to.”

Together, the three finalists — all relatable in their own way — represent the best of the show, Rich says. And he gives all the credit the Nashville Star viewers — and not the producers. “There were artists on the show who should’ve never been on there, in my opinion, and did not represent the best of what Nashville has to offer and would not have a chance at connecting with our audience,” says Rich, who spoke out against “not having real Nashville country involved in the talent picking process.”

But “the fans who have voted throughout the show have voted it down to the final three, and all of the final three would have a shot in the real world at connecting with our audience and making great music in Nashville,” he says. “That tells you that the country music audience is very discerning and you cannot pull the wool over their eyes.” John Russell/NBC (3)