We've all heard the theory: Everyone in the world is separated from everyone else by only six other people. But is it true?
That's the starting point for "6 Degrees of Martina McBride," a new show that combines competition with country music and the social theory known as "six degrees of separation."
Six people from some of the tiniest towns in America will find out just how far connections, talent and Martina McBride can take them toward their dream of country music stardom.
The six hopefuls are Kristina Craig from Whitman, Neb., Mark Jasper from Beulah, N.D., DeAnne Roberts from Dickens, Texas, Ken Swick from Elk River Valley, Colo., Dani Riker from Encampment, Wyo., and Thomas Stratton from Union, Ore. In the end, one of these six wannabe stars and starlets could walk away with a record deal.
The idea behind "Six Degrees" is to cross divides of geography and celebrity by challenging the contestants to "connect" with country music superstar Martina McBride.
They could not call her office. They couldn't find out where her next performance was and hang out by the stage door waiting for her to emerge. They could not Google her.
To complete this part of the competition, contestants had to go to someone they know and ask them to take them to someone they know and so on with the goal of eventually getting to someone who knows Martina McBride personally.
Could they do it? McBride herself had doubts.
"I can't imagine six people could know someone who knows someone who could get to me," she said. "I don't think so."
Ironically, McBride feels she has been the beneficiary of six degrees of separation in her own life and career.
Born with ample talent and the will to make it, the star had no connections in Nashville except one person her husband knew.
John Kay, lead singer for the legendary rock band Steppenwolf, opened the door for McBride to a chain of helpful strangers leading to a music career envied by her peers and beloved by her fans.
But while connections may have helped McBride, connections alone aren't enough if you don't have talent.
So Kristina, Mark, Deanne, Ken, Dani and Thomas, who began the quest to connect in hometowns across America, will come to Nashville, too, to see how far their talent can take them in the second round of the challenge.
Paired with some of the best songwriters in town, they'll be charged with learning a new song and then face off in a singing competition held at Nashville's famous Wildhorse Saloon.
The three contestants voted best by the audience will move on to studio sessions with Martina McBride herself at her recording studio in Nashville. She'll help each singer produce a demo of their best work, which will then be critiqued by three judges, all pros from the music industry.
The winner they pick will be revealed on ABC July 30 and the winning single will be released that night, digitally distributed by Sony BMG through iTunes and other online outlets.
The six degrees of separation theory began as a little known social experiment done in the 1960s by Stanley Milgrim, best known for a controversial study in which he instructed ordinary people to deliver electric shocks to volunteers.
But before this "obedience to authority" research, Milgrim worked on a less well known project where he had volunteers, primarily in the Midwest, attempt to connect with someone they did not know, a lawyer who lived in Boston.
The participants were told to send a letter in the mail to someone they knew personally who they thought might know, or might know someone who knew, this lawyer.
Of the chains that were completed, the average number of links was six. This became known in the general population as six degrees of separation, later the basis of a play and movie of the same name.
The number six is really arbitrary, according to Professor Duncan Watts of Columbia University. "It doesn't really matter whether it is six or seven or eight. What matters is that it's not hundreds or thousands."
But as widespread as the notion has become, there has been very little effort to actually prove the theory in experiments.
Watts has led perhaps the most significant research to date on the subject at the Small World Project at Columbia University in New York.
That experiment is carried out online, and some 60,000 people from 170 countries have taken part.
Each participant is assigned a random "target," one of 18 people located around the world. A participant's job is to link to this person via e-mail. But he or she can't just send an e-mail directly to the target; they must connect by creating a human chain.
First they e-mail someone they know personally, and they ask that person to continue the links by e-mailing someone else they know hoping to eventually get an e-mail to someone who knows the target personally, completing the chain.
Of the hundreds of chains that have been completed, Watts said the average number of links has in fact been six.