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16 'Idol' wannabes perform

Shaeny Johnson stood before the giant red Idol sign on the Craterian Theatre stage and softly began singing I will always love you. As the song continued, Johnson's voice began to crescendo ' and so did her confidence.

Being the first singer at the Southern Oregon Idol competition is not an enviable position. And Johnson, 16, drew kudos from the crowd and all five judges for leading off Tuesday night's performances.

As the whooping and hollering died down, former Miss Rogue Valley and Master of Ceremonies Katie O'Grady gave the teen a big hug. Judge Teresa Farmen, modeling agency owner, led off the comments.

You are very brave, and you have a beautiful voice, said Farmen.

The competition began weeks ago with an open call for singers from age 16 to 24 years old. More than 190 entrants performed in sweltering heat at the Jackson County Expo. The 120 who made it through that audition were weeded down to 32 by judges Leona Mitchell and Michael Mish at a closed audition on July 24.

— The 32 singers will be cut down to eight at the end of Motown Night on Thursday. The final eight will perform Saturday. The winner is guaranteed a shot to sing before a producer of the American Idol 4 television show in Los Vegas.

We may be making someone's dream come true, said O'Grady.

During the show's intermission, the five judges took a break to gather their thoughts and compare notes. All agreed they were pleasantly surprised by the caliber of the contestants. They also said they hadn't yet seen the one.

No one's blown me away. And no one's appalled me, said judge and musician Jym Harris.

Talk radio host and judge Rosemary Harrington said the only surprise so far has been how hard it is to say anything negative knowing the singer's parents are the audience.

I keep seeing positives and negatives in the same performer, said Harrington. It's so frustrating.

Karrie McCoy, judge and former child actor, said she agreed getting tough would be tough. McCoy advised one popular singer to work on her diction and got boos from the audience.

Judge and music critic Bill Weil says all the judges are trying to be balanced in their comments.

We find something positive to say, especially if you have something negative to say, said Weil.

Event organizer Brad Nelson said the judges would need to kick up their criticism a notch for coming performances.

I think you're sugarcoating it a bit, said Nelson. You can be a bit tougher on them.

Tonight's performers have the benefit of having watched Tuesday's singers from the front row of the audience.

Whitney Noble, 17, will take tonight's premier position. And she is listening to the judges comments about stage presence and performance tips.

I'm nervous about going first, but it's definitely been a help to watch tonight, said Noble.

One thing Noble says she's not going to waver on is her decision to sing barefoot ' like k.d. lang.

I just can't do the whole high heels thing, she said.

Performances start at 8 p.m. Call 799-3000 for ticket information.

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 776-4497 or e-mail .