What do you do when your wildest dreams come true at 22?
You learn to dream bigger,” said Harlan’s Jordan Smith, who in mid-December won season 9 of NBC’s The Voice, and with it, a national recording contract, $100,000, a Nissan Altima, and the praise of listeners worldwide. “Honestly, my dream was to get a blind audition. It had nothing to do with advancing, and it certainly had nothing to do with winning,” said Smith, who for his achievements is Kentucky Monthly’s Kentuckian of the Year for 2015. “That it happened so quickly, so unexpectedly, it opens the door to much bigger dreams and aspirations.”
What you may not know about The Voice is that there are numerous levels of auditions before a singer gets to appear in the “blind audition,” called that because the judges/coaches—Blake Shelton, Pharrell Williams, Gwen Stefani and Adam Levine—have their backs turned when the singer begins singing.
All four turned around, which is the sign of approval, as Smith sang “Chandelier” by Sia. “Adam was the last to turn, but I’d watched the show enough that I knew what I needed to do to get him to turn around,” Smith said. When he did, Smith, a music student at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, had his choice of coaches. “I felt a connection with Adam, and I knew I could learn a lot from him.”
The results speak for themselves. Not only did Smith win the title, he has topped the Christian music charts with his versions of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness” and “Hallelujah,” which is a long way from singing in the House of Mercy church choir in Wallins Creek, a coal mining town with a population of 235, just down the road from his even smaller hometown, Coldiron (population 223).
Smith’s success proves that, with hard work, anything is possible, but it also shows that nothing happens overnight. “I first auditioned more than two years ago, and I even got a callback,” he said. “After that, I heard nothing. I came to peace with it. I figured it wasn’t the right time. I told my girlfriend, Kristen, that I knew I could do better, and I was about to go to another audition when, the night before, a talent scout called and asked me to come to Atlanta for a private audition.
“When I look back, I can see that maybe I wasn’t fully prepared the first time I auditioned, and by closing the door then, it was God’s way of opening it this time,” said Smith, who is as genuine and sincere as he appeared on The Voice. “There were hundreds of small steps of faith that led me to this point, many of which I didn’t see as important at the time.”
As Team Jordan grew, more and more people were impressed by his range, including Levine, the lead singer of chart-topping Maroon 5. “Let’s be honest: He’s way better than I am,” Levine said.
But what swayed many was Smith’s clear, positive, Christian message that anything is possible, no matter who you are or where you’re from. “I love the person I am, and I am the person I am because of Harlan. We may not be rich in money and buildings, but we are rich in culture and history,” said Smith, who inspired show-watching parties that lifted the spirits of the county and the region hit hard by the shrinking coal industry.
“When it was announced on television that Jordan had won, you’d have thought the cheer would raise the roof off the Harlan Center,” said Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley. “It was the biggest thing to happen in Harlan County since … ever.
“As much as these mountains are full of coal, these mountains are full of talent,” Mosley continued. “Jordan Smith and Emily Ann Roberts [the 17-year-old runner-up from nearby Knoxville] prove that.”
“This entire experience has been nothing less than awesome,” said Kristen Denny of Pineville, Smith’s girlfriend (now fiancée) of three years whom he met at church camp. “We’ve all known Jordan the worship leader, and now everyone’s gotten a chance to meet Jordan the performer,” especially on songs like Adele’s “Set Fire to the Rain” and Queen’s “Somebody to Love.”
“I initially wanted to do [Queen’s] ‘Bohemian Rhapsody,’ and I expressed that to Adam, but the trajectory of where I was going, it seemed like it was coming out of nowhere. So we landed in the middle on ‘Somebody to Love,’ which ended up being one of my favorite performances because it was so unexpected. I surprised myself, and I think looking back, Adam—he’s a sneaky one—was leading me to a moment like this and showing me slowly what kind of artist I am, and bringing out something in me I didn’t know I had. And that was the week I had a breakthrough moment and realized I actually am a performer, and I have this other side to me.”
More than once, Smith described the six weeks of competition and his victory as surreal—none more than when he found himself a guest on The Today Show on the Thursday morning following his win. “I went to see Today when I was in middle school with my choir, and I was one of those kids you see waving and holding signs,” he said. “Never would I have believed that less than a decade later, I’d be on the other side of the rail looking back at them.”
On Dec. 21, Smith was welcomed home with a parade, award presentations and a meet-and-greet autograph session in which he signed items for more than four hours. Not a single person wanting an autograph left without one.
His journey brought many familiar faces to Harlan, including U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers, Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes, State Sen. Johnny Ray Turner and State Rep. Rick Nelson. They, along with Mosley, made Smith a Kentucky Colonel and Honorary Coal Miner, and proclaimed him Harlan Countian of the Year. He received a proclamation from the U.S. House of Representatives as well as the State Senate and House. He received a key to the City of Harlan, and the fine arts wing of Harlan County High School was named in his honor.
Nelson, a native of Harlan County who now lives in Middlesboro, said, “From the late Cawood Ledford, the longtime voice of the Kentucky Wildcats, to Jordan Smith, we have shown that we out-talk and out-sing most anyone.”
In Harlan, just as he did when Carson Daly announced his victory on television, Smith said he took a deep breath and thought: “OK, Jordan, slow down. Think about this. Remember this moment. Remember the sights, the smells, everything that you can take in, just take it all in and enjoy it.”
He thanked his presenters and, in true Jordan Smith fashion, turned to the crowd. “I am nothing special, and while I appreciate all of this, I am just a combination of all the people who have been a part of my life,” he said. “I am nothing more than the person you all made me. I have been shaped by these people and these mountains, so this is a win for Kentucky and Harlan County. If anything, I’m proof that you should never let where you’re from hold you back, and I’m proud of where I’m from.
“My gift has been broadcasted to the nation and to the world, but there are people here [Harlan] every day using their gifts to help people, and they’re just as important as mine,” Smith said, pointing to his brother, Lincoln, a mechanic, and his father, Kelley, a nurse.