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When Jordan Smith returned to Harlan, Ky., for a visit between the pre-recorded and live rounds of "The Voice," he helped out his former choir teacher, Jeanne Ann Lee, by subbing for her in the choir room for two days. Harlan County High School senior Hunter Holland took a photo with the hometown celebrity.

Like Chattanooga, Harlan, Ky., is a town ringed by mountains and a river runs through it.

Unlike Chattanooga, Harlan's economy is based on coal mining.

Folks in the small mining town — population 2,650 — are living a hardscrabble life right now. As many as one-fifth of them are unemployed — without work so long their benefits have run out, says Mayor Danny Howard, whose full-time job is pharmacist.

"Our economy, the mining economy, has been hit hard. It's nonexistent," says Howard. "All the mines have been shut down; we probably have two, maybe three, left in the county."

For that reason, the mayor says the success of Jordan Smith — a Harlan native — on NBC's "The Voice" couldn't have come at a better time.

"When someone in our community does well, the community takes pride in them," he says. "Times are not too good for people around here, so to have a young man like that representing the region really makes people proud and gives them some hope."

Smith is considered the front runner on Season 9 of "The Voice," which ends with a two-part finale on Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 14-15. Even though he's not Harlan's first singing success — pop star Nick Lachey and "American Idol" finalist Phil Stacey also hail from Harlan — he is the town's current favorite.

"Without a doubt, it's the biggest thing lately," says the mayor. "There are billboards up with his picture on them. One of the local banks put up a picture of Jordan.

"If he wins, we will have one heck of a party to celebrate him coming home. I can guarantee you there will be a lot of sirens and blue lights flashing!"

Leslie Bledsoe, events coordinator at the Harlan Center, the town's 7,000-square-foot events building, says viewing parties there have averaged about 50 folks each week, and they're setting up for 100 today.

Jeanne Ann Lee, Harlan County High School choral teacher, says the school's choir has been selling yard signs to garner support for Smith and remind citizens to watch "The Voice" and vote. The choir doesn't make any profit off the signs, she says, because the money will simply repay the expense of having them made.

Lee says she was Smith's choir teacher from fourth grade through his senior year in high school. He was even the substitute teacher for her in the choir room two days this fall while he was home for a visit between the pre-recorded and live rounds of "The Voice."

She laughs, recalling her students' surprise to find the front runner on "The Voice" was their sub.

"They hung on every word he said. He got more out of them in two days than I probably have all semester," she jokes.

But on a serious note, she adds, "For him to come back home and come to the choir room where he was a student while his recorded shows on 'The Voice' were airing was a rare opportunity and one we treasure. He told me it gave him a whole new perspective of being a teacher."

Contact Susan Pierce at spierce@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6284.

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