Chris Young owes his friend some thanks. Big time thanks.

He didn’t help Young bury a body or bail him out of jail or even pick him up from the airport. What his buddy did is buy him the plane ticket that sent him to the first-round auditions for Nashville Star, the USA Network’s countrified version of American Idol, which, a couple of months down the line, led to Young being crowned the winner of the show’s fourth season and, subsequently, earned him a deal with RCA Records, an instantaneously expanded national fanbase and a headlining slot on the 2006 Nashville Star Tour, which comes to the Ventura Theatre on Sept. 22. It’s the music industry equivalent of lending somebody a quarter to play the slots in Vegas and having him hit the jackpot. Wouldn’t you feel that you deserve at least a fraction of the payout?

“He still gives me hell about it now,” the 20-year-old Murfreesboro, Tenn., native says, chuckling a bit as he drives to Bakersfield for a gig at Buck Owens’ legendary Crystal Palace (another perk). “It’s one of those things. A lot of this business has to do with, not necessarily luck, but with being prepared and with timing. It’s funny how it all happened and came together.”

Ask his fellow contestants and they’ll probably say roughly the same thing. Two of the three finalists joining Young on the tour, Casey Rivers and Nicole Jamrose (third runner-up Matt Mason was unavailable for an interview), talk about their experience in the same kind of shell-shocked, “how did I get here?” tone of voice. Although the competition wrapped four months ago, none of them seems to have had enough distance yet to fully grasp the concept that they are, for this brief flash of time at least, celebrities. “Surreal” is invariably how they describe the whirlwind that has recently surrounded their lives. But what’s remarkable about all of the singers is that they do not look at Nashville Star as the realization of their dreams but rather as a stepping stone toward them. Perhaps that has to do with the fact that, unlike Idol and other similar shows, the participants on Star were all working musicians before they auditioned for it. Each one was toiling in comparative obscurity, of course, but they were all, more or less, able to make a living off music. They regard their connection to the program not as a career catapult but simply as another notch on the résumé — even Young.

“I’m starting at the ground level like any new artist,” he says. “The really great thing is that 3 or 4 million people have seen me because of the show, but from the perspective of radio, I’m starting at ground zero as an artist and working my way up.”

Nicole Jamrose’s audition story is much the same as Young’s. “A friend persuaded me to do it,” the mother of two says from her home in Indiana. Unlike Young, though, Jamrose, 33, had stuffed her aspirations of becoming a professional singer away in her personal closet. “Not that I let go of the dream, but it had taken a backseat.” Once she had children, her ability to go out and perform became more sporadic. Singing became a way to get some supplemental income, to pay some bills. Now, after having beaten out 20,000 other hopefuls, Jamrose’s interest in the creative aspect of making music has been reawakened. “It definitely renewed my enthusiasm,” she says.

For second runner-up Casey Rivers, he didn’t need the show to inspire him. But finally making it after trying for the last three years certainly didn’t hurt his confidence. “As they say, third time’s a charm,” the 23-year-old Texan says while on his way to meet with a producer in Nashville. Rivers began singing at age 3 in church and has basically never stopped. Just before Nashville Star, he had been touring around the South, trying to make a name for himself in the Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana markets. Of course, that job just got a bit easier. But he knows the window for taking advantage of his newfound fame is rapidly closing. “You want to strike while the iron’s hot,” he says. “At the same time, you don’t want people to forget you once they start drawing interest to the new Nashville Star.”

So now, for Young, Jamrose and Rivers, the race is on. Each one hopes to get established in the business before the start of Star’s next season, when a new crop of contenders steps up to claim their 15 minutes. Basically, the goal that stands before them is to drop the Nashville Star anchor, before it drags them under. But, for the most part, they’re just trying to enjoy the ride while it lasts and see where it takes them.

“It has given me a shot to show what I have to contribute as an artist to the country music format,” Young says. “I was playing many dates before that, so it’s not something I just casually decided to do. It’s something I’ve been working toward for a long time, and, hopefully, people see that.”