Scott D. Pierce: Country music singer from Utah gets a big break on TV competition

(Photo courtest of CJ Hicks/USA Network) Savannah Keyes, who grew up in Utah, is a contestant on “Real Country.”

Savannah Keyes has always wanted to perform, and the former Utahn has never been shy about it.

When she was 3, she’d sing karaoke at a restaurant down the street from her grandparents’ house. By the time she was 6, she was looking up gigs on Craigslist.

“I’d end up booking myself at a pizza place,” Keyes said. “I would bring my karaoke machine and they’d let me sing in the corner. I would sing covers, from Patsy Cline to Disney songs. It’s always been something that I was drawn to.”

When she was 13, Keyes made an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. Now, at 21, she may have booked her biggest gig to date — she’s a contestant on “Real Country,” the USA Network’s new singing competition show.

Yes, it’s in the same vein as “American Idol” and “The Voice.” Yes, there are celebrity coaches — Shania Twain, Jake Owen and Travis Tritt. (Keyes is on Owen’s team.) But the format is different.

Keyes is one of 21 acts — singles, duos or groups — selected to perform on the show. Three acts perform each week, with a weekly winner who gets $10,000 and a chance to perform at the Stagecoach Festival in California. The seven weekly winners will perform in the two-hour season finale, and the winner will get $100,000 and will perform at Nashville’s Grand Ole Opry.

“This really is an artist’s showcase,” Keyes said. “It was just incredible.”

For Keyes — whose episode airs Tuesday at 8 p.m. on USA — it was practically perfect. Production of “Real Country” was in Nashville, where she moved when she was 16 to pursue a career. And, of course, it’s a country-music competition, and she’s “always been drawn” to that genre. She compared it to her brothers — who played a lot of sports — deciding that baseball was the game for them.

“There’s a connection for me in country music that goes right down to my roots,” Keyes said.

Roots that extend back to Sandy, where she grew up.

“I hope that I represent my Utah peeps really proudly on the show,” she said.

Waiting to hear if she’d been chosen to be “Real Country,” Keyes and her family went on vacation to Wyoming — where she had no cellphone service.

(Photo courtesy of CJ Hicks/USA Network) Savannah Keyes, who grew up in Utah, is a contestant on “Real Country.”

“On our drive home, I got service for the first time in seven days,” she said. “And the first thing to pop up on my phone was the email saying, ‘Congratulations! You’ve been chosen to be on “Real Country.”’ I. Freaked. Out.”

She saw the email on a Saturday; production on the show began two days later.

“So on Sunday I flew back to Nashville and I was, like, ‘OK, it’s time to get my life together.’”

Production on her episode was completed several weeks ago; she can’t talk about it, of course, except to say that she’s “grateful for the entire thing.” Not just for the coming exposure that might help her career, but because “it was four to six weeks of the best artist development you could ever be given. All you want as a songwriter, as an artist, as a musician is for someone to believe in you enough to give you critiques.”

And she got critiques from Twain, Owen and Tritt.

“I learned how to take care of my voice while singing on it for weeks on end. That is something so valuable,” Keyes said. “And I grew so much as an artist in the process. And I feel like at the end of it I was a better performer, I was a better songwriter, I was a better human.”