Shepherd belted out the ballad with enough gusto that three coaches (Shelton, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson) turned around in their chairs. They all started arguing over her, but Clarkson and Shelton really went at it: At one point, Clarkson ran over to physically block Shelton’s view. Eventually, Clarkson resigned herself to the fact that Shelton, as always, would probably land another country contestant. “I know I’m going to lose you, but I’m a fan,” Clarkson sighed.
Shepherd, looking delighted yet a bit shellshocked, finally had to make a choice. When she did, even she was surprised by her words: “I pick Kelly.”
“Something in my heart was like, ‘Go with Kelly, go with Kelly!’ ” Shepherd said during an interview last week at her publicist’s office. “It just kind of came out of my mouth.”
Over 17 seasons of “The Voice” (Season 18′s two-night premiere kicked off Monday and continues Tuesday), Shelton’s team has indeed had big success with Nashville-bound winners, including Cassadee Pope, Danielle Bradbery and Sundance Head. But since Clarkson joined the show in early 2018, she has won three out of her four seasons — two of those with country singers. (During Monday’s episode, Clarkson landed country-pop singer Megan Danielle, who admitted that Clarkson was her first choice, while Shelton was her second. Shelton, who didn’t turn his chair around, joked, “I know when I’m saving myself some humiliation, okay?!”)
Clarkson’s reign worked out great for Shepherd, who was crowned the champion of Season 15. Clarkson often boasts about her country music connections on the show: She’s married to Nashville manager Brandon Blackstock. Reba McEntire is her mother-in-law. She’s released country songs, including duets with Jason Aldean and Dan + Shay. Those ties to the community really can pay off in a big way: Shepherd’s original song toward the end of the competition was “Broken Hearts,” co-written by Shane McAnally, Ashley Arrison and Aben Eubanks. Clarkson and McAnally (one of country music’s top songwriters) are friends, and although Clarkson had been holding on to the song to record herself, she decided to give it to her young contestant.
Since her victory, Shepherd has been traveling back and forth between her hometown of Farmington, N.M., and Nashville as she embarks on her new career. On March 20, she’s independently releasing two new songs, “Everybody’s Got a Story” (written by McAnally, Kacey Musgraves and Brandy Clark) and “Mama Got the Chair” (written by Nora Collins, Nick Donley and Shepherd’s fellow “Voice” contestant Dave Fenley). Not only did Clarkson help acquire such coveted co-writers, but she got Shepherd studio time to record her coming EP at Starstruck Entertainment, owned by Clarkson’s father-in-law, Narvel Blackstock.
She also gave Shepherd creative freedom over the project. “I got to create it. I got to pick the songs and I got to record it here in Nashville,” said Shepherd, who is still a senior in high school. While Clarkson is often in Los Angeles filming her talk show or traveling for other commitments, they are in frequent communication. “Kelly just being a part of it, it’s been a blessing.”
Clarkson was triumphant again last season with Jake Hoot, 31, who was a rare “one-chair turn” that ended up winning the entire show. Although Clarkson was the only one dazzled enough by Hoot’s version of Luke Combs’s “When It Rains It Pours” to spin around during the blind audition, the other coaches expressed regret throughout the season they passed up the chance to work with him.
“I went in there hoping it would be Blake, but when Kelly turned, I was just like, ‘Man, I’m glad somebody is giving me a chance,’ ” Hoot said recently during an interview at Country Radio Seminar, a conference for radio programmers, industry executives and musicians. “Kelly would tell me, I think every time we met, ‘Blake is just kicking himself right now that he didn’t turn. He doesn’t know why he didn’t turn.’ ”
Hoot, however, quickly realized that being on Clarkson’s team was a huge advantage. “Being on a team as versatile as Kelly had, there were a couple of country people at first. And then I was the only country person left on our team. And then I was the only country person left in the entire competition,” Hoot said. “So I think it definitely helped.”
The country music fan base helped boost Hoot to a victory in December. While he still lives in Cookeville, Tenn., he has made multiple trips to Nashville as he tries to build his band and team while waiting to figure out his record label situation. Blackstock, Clarkson’s husband, has been quite helpful; Clarkson encouraged Hoot to get in touch anytime. (“I feel so bad reaching out to either one of them because they’ve got a million different things going on,” he joked.) He’s already performed at the Grand Ole Opry and booked other shows.
Even though Shelton missed out on both Shepherd and Hoot, they both say they had solid relationships with him during the show, as he offered his support whenever he could.
“Even though I wasn’t on his team, he still was pulling for me,” Hoot said. “So that was really cool.”