Jacksonville was one of only eight audition cities for American Idol’s eighth season, premiering this month on FOX. Did any of the aspiring singers have what it takes? Style magazines made the trip to the Veterans Memorial Arena on a rainy August morning to find out.
The morning started off with a downpour, the ominous cats-and-dogs kind that can make even the most un-superstitious sigh. Still, the young adults inside Jacksonville’s Memorial Arena were upbeat and undeterred. Paired off in twos and threes or bunched in groups, they huddled together, chatting, laughing, and—of course—singing.
Some were meditative. One nervous teen drew in her Hello Kitty journal to pass the time. Several strummed their guitar while sitting on the concrete floor. They wore fedoras and high-heels, jeans and dresses, tattoos and cowboy hats, but one thing was immediately clear whenever a few would break-out into song—plenty of these kids could flat-out sing.
Before long, whether from the electricity of their nervous energy or a bit of meteorological serendipity, the rain stopped. All morning and into the afternoon, the anxious singers filed into the arena for their auditions, grouped in fours to take their turn in front of a pair of judges. They were granted only a few seconds to make their case, and overwhelmingly, they were turned away, although every once in a while, a roar erupted from friends and family sitting in the arena as an exuberant auditioneer was granted a pass to the next round. Their Idol dream would live another day.
But what of the ones who didn’t make it through? More than a few were very good singers, most were well-dressed, and everyone arrived with charisma in spades, but for one reason or another, the judges decided they were missing that certain something to be the next Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, or David Cook. After talking to local auditioneers from Lake and Marion counties at the arena that day, Style magazines discovered that most left not sure what the judges wanted. But they all shared a common sentiment about the experience—it was worth it, and they would still pursue their dream. Idol or no Idol. Rain or shine.
‘No One Was
Kerry Strickland, Howey-In-The-Hills
Four seasons ago, a pretty blonde from Oklahoma took the top prize on American Idol, marking the beginning of one of the most successful Idol careers ever. Most recently, platinum-selling, Grammy Award-winning country music singer Carrie Underwood was named Female Vocalist of the Year by the Country Music Association. So it’s no surprise that country singers like Kerry Strickland had high hopes for the Jacksonville audition. Wasn’t it time for another country girl to win?
“I’ve never tried anything like this,” the Howey-In-The-Hills native admits. “I’ve been singing ever since I was little, and I’ve won a couple contests. I figured, It’s here in Florida. Why not?”
Kerry, who grew up on Reba McEntire and The Judds, works on her music with her husband and a musician friend and has already put out a CD of her own music with a second one in the works. For her audition though, she stuck with a well-known country hit, “Stay” by Sugarland.
“The judges told everybody that no one was strong enough,” Kerry says with a shrug. “But if an audition was here again in Florida, I would come back.”
‘I Thought I Did
A Good Job’
Ashley Caraway, Clermont
East Ridge High student Ashley Caraway was one of the many auditioneers who arrived early—really early—to be at the arena on time.
“I came up last night at 9pm and slept in my car in the parking garage,” she says. “I thought I did a good job, but I guess I didn’t.”
She clearly did well, though, because her judges let her sing Avalon’s “Everything to Me” uninterrupted for about half a minute and then offered no criticism when she was done. In the no-feelings-spared, that’s-enough-next-please American Idol audition, Ashley’s experience seems like a small victory. Of course, her time in her school’s chorus as well as her song choice may have helped her performance.
“Music is about passion, she says, “and I’m very passionate about God. I thought it was the perfect fit.”
Although she recalls being “really nervous,” Ashley is unfazed about not making it to the next round and says she might come back again for another shot next year.
“I would,” she says, “if it was closer to me.”
Hannah VanDusen, Ocala
When Hannah VanDusen heard at work that American Idol was holding an audition so close to Ocala, she knew she had to give it a second shot. The last time she’d tried out, she wasn’t prepared.
“It wasn’t as organized and I wasn’t nearly as confident,” the Belleview High student recalls. “I got up there and kind of whispered my song.”
That song was Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” so this year she made a stronger selection with the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly,” although her favorite music is “soulful Christian” from artists like Jennifer Knapp.
“I was excited,” Hannah says of her audition, “and I was really nervous.”
Hannah says she saw fewer costumes this year, although the “Miss American Idol” costume was a highlight. Coming up with a group of friends seemed to help Hannah keep a positive outlook on the experience.
“Even though I didn’t make it, she says, smiling, “I’m glad I tried.”
To Stop Singing’
Matt Brown, Ocala
Texas native Matt Brown arrived with a game plan for his American Idol audition—no ballad. Rather than overdoing his audition with an emotional high-note-hitter to impress the judges, Matt kept things upbeat with Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.”
“It’s just a great vocal song,” the Ocala resident says, “and it was fun and outgoing.”
Matt, who calls Carrie Underwood “my girl” and admired past contestant George Huff, admits the level of talent exhibited this year was a little daunting.
“It was tough. It’s intense to hear some of the people,” he says. “It’s like, How could I make it through if she’s singing a Whitney Houston song better than Whitney?”
Still, he plans on taking his judge’s advice to polish his vocal abilities to get up to speed with American Idol’s ever-increasing standards.
“I might do a little training and see where it’s at next year,” Matt says, before adding with a smile, “I’m not going to stop singing.”
Dani Burns, Ocala
If personality alone could get a singer through to the next round, Dani Burns would be a shoo-in. Optimistic, gregarious, and as sweet as can be, the Ocala teen says she’s been singing since she could talk and has never had a single singing lesson.
“Pop and hair bands, I listened to everything,” she laughs. “Jewel was a big inspiration.”
Fittingly, Dani chose the Alaskan singer’s “You Were Meant for Me” for her audition, but the judges weren’t feeling the sentiment of the song’s title.
“They said to work as long as you can, as much as you can,” she explains, “and come back next year.”
Went Really Bad’
Tiffany Cuadria, Ocala
Tiffany Cuadria was surprised by two things at the Jacksonville audition—the rain and the talent on-hand. Still, the Dunnellon High graduate believes she did her very best. It just wasn’t enough.
“They gave me seven seconds,” says Tiffany, who sang Stevie Wonder’s ‘All I Do.’ I’m a very talented young girl, but I feel like my audition went really bad.”
The judges told her she wasn’t a fit for this season, but there will be plenty of time for the Central Florida Community College student to return for another audition. She’ll have the advantage then of knowing what to expect.
“I’ll definitely come back next year,” Tiffany says. “It was a great experience.”
‘I Slept Out Here
Tuesdae Frazier, Ocala
Nothing about the American Idol audition process is easy. The hours are early. The waiting is intimidating. You get a few seconds to sing your absolute best in front of judges who’ve heard it all, and then, most likely, you are shown the door. Of course, it’s the act of trying that counts, but sometimes that’s little consolation when you camped out like Tuesdae Frazier.
“I slept out here all night, on the ground,” she says. “I haven’t been asleep in two days. I let the nerves get the best of me.”
The Jacksonville native who’s lived in Ocala for the past two years sang “I Need You Baby” by Lauryn Hill. Though calm and composed, she was frustrated by how many talented singers were passed over.
“I don’t know what they were looking for this year. They turned down a lot of people with strong voices,” she admits. “I thought I was going to make it.”
‘I Did The
Best I Could’
Abbey McBee, Ocala
Some of Ocala’s finest talent was on display at the Jacksonville auditions, especially when native Abbey McBee stepped up to the judges’ table. The ambitious teenager has performed in musicals at the Ocala Civic Theatre for over a decade now—and she’s only sixteen.
“My dad tells me I was singing ‘Angels We Have Heard on High’ when I was three,” she says, smiling. “I started taking vocal lessons when I was thirteen. My vocal coach—the musical director at the Ocala Civic Theatre, Jason Bartosic—is the reason I’m where I am right now.”
He also picked her song for the audition, “Open Arms” by Journey. Although she didn’t make it to the next round this time, Abbey is undeterred musically. She just doesn’t think American Idol is in her future.
“I worked hard to get here and did the best I could,” she says with a shrug. “I don’t know what they’re looking for.”
Abbey, who admired American-Idol-runner-up-turned-Broadway-actress Diana DeGarmo, has her sights set on college and then a career beyond that.
“I might minor in music,” she says, “but I’m going to major in medicine.”
‘I Was Less Nervous
Samantha Games, Ocala
This wasn’t Samantha Games’ first time at an American Idol audition. The Leesburg High graduate tried out once before a couple of years ago.
“They told me I just seemed really nervous, but that I was really good and to come back,” she recalls. “I thought I was less nervous this time, but when I got in front of the judges, I started shaking and it affected my voice.”
Something unique also happened this time. Her friend, who tried out as a joke, made it through, which may or may not leave someone trying out for real feeling low. Samantha says her friend purposely sang poorly on Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You” and Minnie Ripperton’s “Lovin’ You.”
“I thought it was horrible,” she laughs, “but the judges put her through to the next round.”
As for herself, the Central Florida Community College student comes from a long line of musicians.
“My uncle played with Garth Brooks, McBride & the Ride, and Sammy Kershaw,” she says. “I grew up with country music.”
Though auditioning this time meant arriving at 2am, Samantha says she’d do it again. And if the old adage about three times being a charm is true at all, she might want to stick with the song she sang at both auditions, “I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray.
“I thought that a lot of people wouldn’t be singing it,” she says. “It was different.”
‘I’m Going To
Make It On My Own’
Chandler Heins, Ocala
Chandler Heins is the kind of guy you want to see do well at an audition like this. Polite and soft-spoken, he’s a talent that could easily be overshadowed by the more dramatic performers. In fact, chances are Ocalans have heard him play before. The Ocala resident performs regularly on the weekends at the Starbucks downtown. Though he wasn’t allowed to bring his guitar in with him for the audition—only a cappella vocals are permitted—Chandler sang one of his own songs for the judges.
“I started playing when I was seven,” he recalls. “I loved the radio, and my mom bought me a guitar, so I just started singing.”
A first-time auditioneer, Chandler admits he was “pretty nervous” when his turn in front of the judges arrived. He says his music plans probably won’t include a second audition any time soon.
“I don’t know if I’m going back to American Idol,” he admits. “I think I’m going to try to make it on my own.”
‘I’m not going
to give up’
Jason Walton, Gainesville
Jason Walton can’t remember a time when he didn’t want to be a singer. His passion for music was nurtured in choir groups as a young boy.
“I didn’t start singing solo until a couple of years ago,” he says. “I’ve always loved to sing, ever since I was little. I always watched American Idol, so I wanted to try out.”
Last year the Gainesville native traveled to two season-seven auditions—north to Atlanta and south to Miami, so Jacksonville was a much shorter drive for Jason this year. He arrived at 7am and performed “For Once in My Life” for the judges.
“I love Stevie Wonder,” Jason says with a wide smile. “And Justin Timberlake and Beyonce.”
He’s also a big fan of Fantasia, winner of American Idol season three, as well as season-two winner Reuben Studdard and season-seven runner-up David Archuleta. Though America won’t see him on stage during this year’s show, Jason has every intention of coming back again to try out.
“I’m not going to give up,” he says emphatically. “I’m going to keep trying because God gave me this dream.”
‘A Lot of Talented
Tara Tillotson, Gainesville
Being center stage is nothing new for University of Florida student Tara Tillotson. A former Miss Florida Teen contestant, she’s a singer-songwriter in her own right.
“I play the guitar and piano, and I sing,” she says. “I love Ella Fitzgerald and Joss Stone definitely—anyone jazzy.”
But like fellow auditioneer Matt Brown, the high level of talent on display this year made Tara the most anxious. As people wait their turn to sing in front of the judges, they can clearly hear those ahead of them auditioning.
“I was more nervous that there was a lot of talented people here,” Tara says. “Just standing up in front of all these people, knowing only so many are going to get picked, it’s kind of scary.”
Tara, who sang “Killing Me Softly” when her turn came, was a big fan of the most recent American Idol winner, David Cook, admitting with a burst of laughter that “the guitar did it for me.” While she’s unsure if she’ll audition again next year, the Jacksonville experience was a positive one for the budding musician.
“I might try out, just for the fact that it’s interesting being around so many talented people,” she says. “I met a lot of cool friends.”
Travis Wood, Gainesville
Life in the Navy can have its share of down time, especially when off-duty on a nuclear submarine far below the ocean’s surface. That’s when Santa Fe Community College student Travis Wood discovered his vocal gift.
“It started out passing the time,” says the six-year Navy veteran. “Somebody said I sounded good so I started singing karaoke. Then a buddy of mine actually writes music, and I recorded a couple of tracks with him. People really enjoyed it.”
Originally from Bradenton, Travis was first influenced by his father’s love of rock music and then grew to love country music, especially Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, and Rascal Flatts.
“I sang Rascal Flatts’ ‘God Blessed the Broken Road’ today,” he says. “I love country. But I like to sing some rock music, too—a little Creed.”
Travis thought the judges would be looking for more country-leaning vocalists this time around, but he’s content to take home the experience of trying out for one of the most popular shows on TV today.
“You’re singing in front of a lot of people, so it’s a little odd,” he says. “But it’s not every day you get a chance to do something that’s going to allow you to possibly become a star.”
Season 8 of American Idol premieres Jan. 13 at 8pm on FOX.