It took nearly a decade longer than he probably expected, but country-soul singer Sundance Head finally won a reality singing competition series.
Head, who made it to the finals on the sixth season of “American Idol” in 2007, was named the winner of NBC’s “The Voice” on Tuesday night. He beat out some tough competition, including runner-up Billy Gilman, child country star-turned-aspiring pop artist; second runner-up Wé McDonald, the teen singing sensation; and third runner-up Josh Gallagher, the contemporary country crooner.
The son of Texas musician Roy Head, who topped the charts with “Treat Her Right” in 1965, Head started weeping as his wife and three children joined him onstage. His father also cried tears of joy. Head, 38, is now the proud new owner of $100,000 and a record deal.
Although Head had impressive performances during the season (particularly his cover of “Me and Jesus,” which shot to No. 1 on iTunes), his win is a bit of a surprise — Gilman was seen as the likely front-runner from the beginning. So what does this say about the show?
One theory is that viewers are finally starting to tire of the show’s hyping contestants who were already famous, or at the very least, appear to have an unfair advantage. Last season’s winner, Alisan Porter, was a child actress who starred in the movie “Curly Sue.” Other winners, such as Craig Wayne Boyd, Cassadee Pope, Tessanne Chin and Jermaine Paul, were already well-known in music industry circles.
Gilman, while a phenomenal singer, may have leaned too heavily on his “formerly famous” backstory. As he and the producers constantly reminded everyone, he gained fame as a country singer at age 10 when he signed a record deal and became the youngest person to have a Top 40 country hit. His album peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart, and he earned two Grammy nominations. Even coaches Blake Shelton and Miley Cyrus were psyched when he auditioned; Gilman had once opened for Cyrus’s dad, Billy Ray Cyrus.
But when Gilman’s voice changed as a teen, his record label dropped him. He said he also struggled coming to terms with his sexuality; he publicly came out in 2014. Over the years, Gilman worked to rebuild his voice and realized that he wanted to be a pop singer. He reiterated over and over on “The Voice” that he was grateful to have a second chance at a career — but it may have just reminded people that he already had a shot at becoming a star and could have pursued other avenues with his connections.
Even Adam Levine, Gilman’s coach, warned him early on of this challenge: “This is gonna be an uphill battle for you, because you’re a very, very, incredibly talented person that’s had some success,” Levine said. “You’ve got to get people rooting for the new you.”
Meanwhile, Head’s storyline was that this could be the last shot at a singing career, as he is in his late 30s with a family to support. Curiously, his experience with “American Idol” was never mentioned. Instead, he just told audiences he’s been playing music full time since he lost his job. “I do want to be able to leave my children a legacy, the same that my dad has given me,” Head said through tears, before his first audition.
So even though Head has music connections through his dad, and briefly landed a major label record deal after “Idol,” viewers still might have viewed him as more of an underdog than Gilman. Everyone loves an underdog story.
Then, there is also the possibility that the audiences connected more to Head’s performances — the main criticism for Gilman was that his songs were so technically proficient that they lacked emotion.
Plus, Gilman moved into the pop realm, and reality TV show audiences love country singers; they’re frequently the most popular contestants. Head also emphasized that he was more soul than country, but his powerhouse voice was reminiscent of Chris Stapleton, the classic country singer who had massive sales this past year.
Shelton made the Stapleton comparison during Head’s very first audition, and it was probably why he kept Head around over Josh Gallagher, another country singer on his team with a more contemporary sound. (Levine then promptly stole Gallagher for his team.) After 11 seasons on “The Voice,” Shelton is savvy enough to know what works for viewers.
“This show was made for artists like Sundance,” Shelton said in Monday’s penultimate episode, adding, “It’s literally like somebody reached back into time sometimes and found this classic iconic vocalist that went undiscovered and plopped him down on the stage in front of us. It’s absolutely unbelievable.”