Updated:Basin City's Country Cuties singing group wins hearts across Mid-Columbia (w/video)

By Ty Beaver, Tri-City HeraldMarch 9, 2014 

— Nothing in Shafer Murray's classroom would give you the idea that there's anything going on besides talk of math problems.

But come recess, anyone in the hallways of Basin City Elementary School can easily hear the voices of 10 sixth-grade girls emanating from the room.

They're practicing scales and arpeggios and rehearsing for their next performance, perhaps in front of their classmates or the crowd at Pasco's Gesa Stadium.

"That's not right," said Marissa Lloyd, 11, as she and two of the girls set their pitch while practicing The Star-Spangled Banner. "OK, one, two, three, oh say can you see ..."

The girls, known as the Country Cuties, have become a a Mid-Columbia entertainment phenomenon with appearances across the region, hundreds of views on YouTube and talk of taking the show on the road.

"Singing in front of a crowd has always been my dream," said Jacey Naef, 11.

The idea began when some students wanted to stay inside during recess this winter, out of the cold, Murray said.

To reduce the chaos, he made a rule that whoever stayed inside would have to sing -- whittling the group down to about a dozen students.

The girls, who had previously sang only in school programs, practice scales by following along to a computerized keyboard program. Murray selects songs and arrangements for them by listening on YouTube. The math and reading teacher said he is not musically inclined.

"I finally learned what the notes on the keyboard are," he said. "That took a few hours."

Amateur status hasn't held the students back. After singing at a veterans event followed by an a cappella Christmas concert, they've had regular gigs ever since. They most recently sang at the championship game of the NWAACC women's basketball tournament and a Tri-Cities Fever game. They are scheduled to sing at a Washington State University-BYU baseball game at Gesa Stadium.

The group's name is self-explanatory, Jacey said, "because we're from the country and we're cute."

Part of the Cuties' gimmick is displaying a sign at each performance proclaiming "We Sing For Hot Cheetos." That's a snack reward Murray gave them following an early performance and has become their "pay" for performing -- or rehearsing for that matter.

"You'll get more tonight," Murray said, crumpling up an empty bag after a rehearsal.

"But I want them now," sighed Mayra Diaz, 12

Talented student groups aren't a new thing at Basin City, which has about 430 students and serves families living in central Franklin County, said Principal Lisa Flatau. The school also has a unicycle team and marimba band who have given performances. The activities are encouraged because students love creative outlets and the opportunity to explore the world.

But Murray and the Country Cuties have taken their efforts to the next level, and the school is proud of them, Flatau said.

"He's put in a lot of time. The kids too," she said.

The Cuties are already looking to bigger things. There is talk of performing at an Oakland Athletics game this summer or maybe Disneyland, though Murray said fundraising will play a big role in whether the group can afford the trip.

The group has also been asked if they'd perform at a future Gonzaga basketball game. Though they'll be out of Murray's class and in the seventh grade. But each of the girls hopes the group will continue.

"You like the spotlight," Mayra told Marissa.

"I do like the spotlight," Marissa replied.

-- Ty Beaver: 509-582-1402; tbeaver@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @_tybeaver; Google+: +TyBeaverTCHerald

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