Christmas came early this year for three aspiring local singers who have gotten big breaks in high-profile gigs.
For the two adults, their holiday break was earning spots on USA Network's inaugural country singing competition, "Real Country." For a preteen, it was landing a role in a Dollywood musical revue — and even getting to sing with the divine Ms. Dolly.
Singers Larry Fleet and Dave Kennedy were chosen by audition from contestants across the country who sent video auditions for "Real Country." Judges Shania Twain, Travis Tritt and Jake Owen chose seven singers each to represent their team in weekly rounds of competition.
One singer from each team performed each week, the audience voted after each performance and the two with the highest scores advanced to a second round in that night's episode. The audience and a guest star judge voted again after those two performances and the winner advanced to the finale, which aired Dec. 11.
Ironically, Fleet and Kennedy both came in second to the same woman, Jaida Dreyer. Kennedy was runner-up in his weekly episode; Fleet came in second in the finale. Dreyer is a Nashville songwriter trying to establish a singing career. During her interviews it was revealed she has written songs recorded by country stars such as Sara Evans and Tim McGraw. As the winner, she received $100,000 and a performance at the Grand Ole Opry.
Fleet was encouraged to audition for "Real Country" by judge Jake Owen, who picked the singer for his team. Growing up playing gospel, bluegrass and country with his family, Fleet said his family worked in the concrete business and his dad encouraged him and his brother "not to follow in his footsteps."
Owen, who first heard Fleet performing at an event he attended, said he walked up to Fleet and told him "he needed to quit his day job" and pursue music.
"Jake also said, 'The good thing for you is you don't have to look good to sing country music anymore,'" joked the big, bearded singer, bringing guffaws from the "Real Country" audience as Owen's face turned scarlet.
After his finale performance of Lady Antebellum's "You Look Good," Tritt told Fleet that "he looked good singing that song and sounded good, too."
Owen praised the singer for "nailing every performance" and said Fleet's "completely identifiable voice" would serve him well in radio.
Kennedy was selected by Tritt, but says he never saw the star until performing before him at the taping. Just by being in the right place at the right time he ended up on "Real Country."
Kennedy was in Key West in May for the BMI Songwriters Festival. One of the casting agents for USA Network saw him play and asked him, along with several of his friends, to audition. Kennedy sent an audition tape, was called in for a live audition, then was called back for an interview with a casting agent early last summer in Nashville.
"From there, my understanding is they presented the contestants to the judges, and Travis Tritt picked me," says Kennedy.
For his performance, Kennedy sang "Willin'" by Little Feat on his episode. He says he relates to the song because "I've spent so many years at gigs being done at 2 in the morning and driving home when the only other people on the road with me are truck drivers. I feel like I've lived as close a life to that song as possible.
"I think it's a beautiful song, and I was lucky that they said I could play it. A lot of people got turned down to sing their favorites on the show. The producers had a lot to say about what you could sing."
Kennedy, a 1999 graduate of Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences, got into music with piano lessons at age 4. He later sang six years with the Chattanooga Boys Choir under the direction of the late Everett O'Neal.
"I learned as much or more about music from Boys Choir as anything else I've ever done," he says.
After graduating from CSAS, where he played trumpet in the band and sang in the choir, Kennedy went to the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, where he sang in the UT Concert Choir.
He says 10 years ago he lost his job, so he started gigging in bars and clubs in Knoxville, Cookeville and here.
"I did as well doing that as I had done in my old job," he says.
The positive response he's gotten from his 10 minutes of airtime on "Real Country" may be just the jumpstart his music career needed.
"I've gotten some offers from places that didn't know who I was before and have gotten in touch with me," he says.
"It's given me an introduction to some of the business side of Nashville. I had good relationships with a lot of publishers in Nashville, but this has helped make some introductions on the booking end and helped solidify introductions in town. Which was the purpose of the show: to be a showcase for up-and-coming artists who haven't had a vehicle to get their sound out."
Next up for Kennedy: his first solo album, due out in spring.
Singing and Dancing at Dollywood
While other preteens were enjoying summer break, Erin Eames was auditioning for a part in a Dollywood musical revue.
Erin, a sixth-grader at Center for Creative Arts and the daughter of Lindsay and Jason Eames of Soddy-Daisy, won the youth part in Dollywood's "Christmas in the Smokies," at Dollywood's Celebrity Theater. The show will run through Jan. 5.
She landed her first show at the theme park with her first major audition outside of the Chattanooga area.
But even at the age of 10, Erin is no stranger to the stage. She has been performing since her first church production at age 7. Erin has had parts in about 10 productions with area theatrical companies and did "Singing in the Rain" with Camp Broadway in Atlanta.
Two to four days each week, Erin and her mother commute to Sevierville, Tennessee, where they stay in a hotel while Erin performs in three or four shows each day. Her role is double-cast so she isn't required to miss a full week of school. Her CCA teachers send her lessons by computer so she can keep up with her class while in Sevierville.
"Christmas in the Smokies" boasts a cast of 14 singers accompanied by an eight-piece band. Erin has solos in four songs from the company's repertoire: "We Need a Little Christmas," "Let's Make a Memory," "A Place Called Home" and "Sleigh Ride."
So far, the highlight of this Dollywood gig has been getting to sing with Dolly Parton, she says.
"Our show cast got picked to sing with Dolly and her family for Media Day. We sang 'Circle of Hope," says Erin.
Another perk: She's starting to build a nest egg. All money she is paid is put into a savings account, which her mother says will be put to use for college tuition or whatever they decide when Erin reaches 18.
But more important, the experience of singing and performing in a professional Dollywood show is priceless for this musical-theater student at CCA.
Contact Susan Pierce at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6284.