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These Long Islanders put songs over with a twang

Portrait of singer Leah Critelli (Center) in her

Portrait of singer Leah Critelli (Center) in her Commack home on the afternoon of November 4, 2010. She is surrounded by the dance troupe "Posh" (Left to Right) Avrey Pellicane, Anesha Reade, Alyssa Knudsen, and Denise Guest. Leah is scheduled to compete in the "Long Island's got Country" singing competition on November 13h. (Newsday / Thomas A. Ferrara) Credit: Newsday/Thomas A. Ferrara

Watch out, Taylor Swift.

Saturday night in Wading River, 32 country music finalists will compete to win a Long Island's Got Country contest, crooning tunes that include Carrie Underwood's "Cowboy Casanova" and an original composition by a Johnny Cash-loving former Nassau County police officer.

"We just came up with this because there's kind of a closet country following on Long Island," says Peter Castelli, co-owner of SSLI Productions in Smithtown, which is running the inaugural show. Singers will perform at The Inn and Spa at East Wind; spectators are encouraged to line-dance along. "We want the crowd up," Castelli says.


Some hopefuls like to sing any genre of music; others are country fanatics. One contender who falls into the former category - Linda Pace, a 42-year-old party planner from Selden - will raid her mother's closet to dress the part.

"She's got the hat and the boots and the fringe and the tassles," Pace says of her mom, Donna Eidinger of Hauppauge, who is active in the Long Island Country Music Association as a dancer. It was Mom who wanted to attend an audition to hear performers and was thrilled when her own daughter got to belt out Bonnie Raitt's "I Can't Make You Love Me" and was selected as a finalist. "It was flattering," Pace says.


The night may sound like one big karaoke fest, but Castelli says it's more, because the entertainers have rehearsed and know the lyrics - they're not reading words off a screen. And several contestants have experience in clubs or onstage.

Close to 100 people tried out during the past few months. The organizers have prescreened the song each finalist will perform.

"We didn't want a whole slew of ballads," Castelli says.


Three judges choose the winner. "We don't publicize who the judges are until the night of the show," Castelli says cagily. Prizes were still being determined. Radio personality K.T. Mills from WALK-FM, a principal show sponsor, will emcee.

Contestant Pace will be up against country diehards Leah Critelli of Commack and Rich Sisson of North Babylon, among others. Critelli, a 44-year-old home health care aide, plans to croon Carrie Underwood's "Cowboy Casanova" and bring her 21-year-old daughter Anesha Reade's group of four dancers to accompany her performance. She also may have her supporters wear T-shirts.

Sisson says he sings a different kind of country music than most of the other hopefuls. "I didn't just start with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill," says Sisson, a retired Nassau police sergeant who declined to give his age. "I go back to Eddy Arnold, Johnny Cash, Buck Owens. That's the kind of country music I grew up on."

In fact, Sisson starred as Johnny Cash in the 2009 production "Ring of Fire" at Theatre Three in Port Jefferson and usually performs dressed all in black. He wrote his own song, "I Can Hear Long Island Calling Me," for the 2008 New York State Senior Idol Contest, and he's reprising it for this competition.

"I'm going to be stomping my feet and singing old-time country," he promises.

Long Island's Got Country

When | Where: 7 p.m. Saturday, The Inn and Spa at East Wind, 5720 Route 25A, Wading River, 631-864-2450,

Admission: $25

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