CONWAY, Arkansas — Before Susan Boyle, there was Kris Allen.
Strip out the bit about being a middle-age spinster who's never been kissed, and you have the story of an unexpectedly powerful voice inside a shy, modest kid from a small Arkansas town who never tried to make a big deal about his impressive singing talent.
To hear Allen's best friends tell it, if they hadn't prodded the 23- year-old "American Idol" finalist to pick up his guitar and sing (and later to try out for the show), America might never have met the top-four finisher who is making an unexpected bid for the winner's circle.
JP Davenport, 24, met Allen in junior high and, sitting on a black leather couch in the spare living room of mutual friends Charles Browder and John Brunson's Conway rental home, she recalled the singer as a "nerdy" kid with a skater cut who was quiet and normal in every way. "Through the year, [I] never knew he could sing," Davenport laughed, as one of the windows across the room rattled from the thunder and pounding rain of a typical Conway spring deluge. "Nobody knew he could sing, and it was about senior year of high school. ... He didn't do talent shows. ... We were at his house one day, and his brother showed us a video of Kris."
Davenport, who roomed with Allen and his brother in college, said she was blown away by the clip, in which Allen was belting out a tune and jamming on his guitar in a way that blew her mind. " 'There's no way that's Kris!' " she recalled saying. "It got to the point where we were like, 'Kris, you gotta sing. You gotta sing in front of us!' "
That was the beginning of Allen's evolution from a bedroom crooner to a more assured singer who would flawlessly play just about any cover his friends requested and soon began performing live around Conway, released an independent CD and helped lead the rocking worship services at New Life Church in his hometown and in nearby Little Rock.
With a collection of photos of Allen with his close circle of friends looking down on him from the mantle, Browder, 25, recalled the first time he heard Allen sing, a performance that convinced him his friend was more than just a musical dabbler. "It was in his pajamas at his house and [we asked him] to play Justin Timberlake," Browder said. "And he's got a guitar, and he's like, 'You can't play Justin Timberlake with a guitar!' "
But Allen proved himself wrong, setting the stage for the creative reinterpretations his friend has been busting out on the show over the past few weeks that have impressed the judges and gotten him into contention. "The first time I saw him perform in front of people ... was at a venue in Little Rock," added Browder, who recently flew out to Hollywood to watch Allen perform on the show. "People were just like, 'This big voice coming out of this tiny little man.' [It was] like a cartoon or something."
Though he was constantly amazed by his friend's vocals while singing everything from Britney Spears to Radiohead, Browder admitted that when he heard Allen was trying out for "Idol," he didn't think it was the right call. Browder said Allen's humble, shy personality didn't seem to fit the harsh glow of the "Idol" spotlight.
"Through the years, we'd always be like, 'Kris, go do "American Idol," ' and he's like, 'No that's not for me, that's not something I would want to do,' " Davenport said. But then, last year, Allen's older brother Daniel, also a singer, decided to try out and convinced Kris to come along. "I think that he just felt like this time, he was ready. He had it all. He could write songs, he could play all the instruments ... I think he felt like he could do it."
Given how low-key he is in real life, Allen struggled in the early stages of the competition to establish his personality, drawing complaints from judge Simon Cowell that he didn't have enough star quality to win the competition. But Brunson, 22, said the fact that Allen is not as over-the-top dramatic as Adam Lambert or Allison Iraheta and does not have as complex a backstory as Danny Gokey might end up being a bonus in the end.
"When he first got on the show and everybody was like, 'Oh, you don't have the personality for this' ... it was making me mad, because why does that stuff matter?" his former roommate said on the eve of last week's massive hometown gathering in a nearby college basketball arena to vote for Allen. "He's not the most dramatic person in real life. He's not some superstar to come out of Arkansas. He's normal, and I think that's an appeal to America and to the rest of us, is the fact that he is normal. People underestimated him at first, but now I think he's really something to contend with. The further along the show goes, I think the more people are realizing that, and the more his popularity is growing."
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