The "American Idol" judges heard plenty of earnest country singers and saw an endless dusty parade of cowboy boots, gingham skirts and potential new Carrie Underwood's during Wednesday night's audition visit to Austin, Texas.
But for viewers, one good ol' boy stood out above the rest thanks to his all-American name, tear-in-your-beer backstory and classic country crooner voice: John Wayne Schulz. The bonafide cowboy, whose family dates its Texas roots back to the late 1800s, lives on the Schulz ranch, where he plies his roping trade when he's not chasing the Garth Brooks dream.
After a story about how his audition was part of a promise made to his mother when she was diagnosed with cancer three years ago, Schulz, 23, easily won the judges over with his cover of Brooks & Dunn's "Believe."
According to an article in the Texas A&M University newspaper The Battalion, there's good reason why Schulz seemed so unflappable and confident during his audition.
Billboard magazine first dug up the article from April 2002, which profiled a then-14-year-old Schulz talking about the release of his debut album, Ropin' Dreams. The 10-track disc was released by Texas-based independent label BSW Records and the company's CEO told Billboard it hit shelves in the U.S., Europe and the Pacific Rim.
"He was very, very young when we first started," said BSW boss Frank Willson of Schulz, the latest in a string of "Idol" hopefuls who've released indie albums before their "Idol" auditions, which also includes last year's winner, Lee DeWyze, and season five winner Taylor Hicks. Having previously recorded an album does not disqualify Schulz from the "Idol" competition as long as he's not currently signed to another label.
Shortly after the album's release, Schulz, a Mormon, went on a two-year mission trip, and though he didn't break ties with BSW, Willson said the label was never really able to reconnect with its young star after that. Willson said Schulz is no longer on BSW's roster of artists.
At the time of its release, Schulz spoke to The Battalion about his country dreams, which had started well before his teens. "My first public appearance was at a talent show in the second grade," Schulz said at the time. "After that, I was asked to perform at banquets, county fairs and pageants. I did a talent show for 4-H in Three Rivers, Texas, and ended up winning. I then realized that [singing] was what I really wanted to do."
Thanks to his family's support, Schulz kept plugging away, but by sixth grade they realized he would have to be homeschooled if he was serious about a music career. Once he dropped out of traditional school, Schulz's mom, Vicky, started booking his gigs and helping to spread the word, craftily using his unique name as a selling point. But not for the reasons you think.
"When people find out my name is John Wayne, they always ask if I was named after the movie star," Schulz said. "Sometimes they think that it is just a stage name, but I have one uncle named John and another named Wayne, so I sometimes say I was named after them. But my dad really is a John Wayne fan."
The album featured performances from Asleep at the Wheel pianist Chris Gage and former Jerry Jeff Walker drummer Freddie Krc, with most of the lyrics written by contributing artists. Though the article claimed that Dreams was nominated for seven Grammy awards, Willson clarified that it got enough votes to be considered in seven categories in the first round of Grammy ballots, but was not nominated after the final voting round.
"Sometimes I just want to say 'I quit,' " the teenage Schulz said of the long road to fame. "[A music career] is a lot of work and takes a lot of time. Sometimes I just want to be with my friends."
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