The transformation of Chris Daughtry

by Jordan Green

At the moment he’s trying to force open a hotel window in Hartford, Conn. because the room is too hot.

Chris Daughtry, son of McLeansville and would-be American Idol, is living the dream. It’s the second week of December, and the next night he and his band will play Veterans Memorial Coliseum with the Goo Goo Dolls, Barenaked Ladies and Smashmouth. Then it’s back home to Guilford County to spend Christmas with his wife and two adopted children.

Big things are happening, although you might not detect that from the matter-of-fact tone in which Daughtry, a former employee of Crown Honda in Greensboro, describes his music career.

His debut album on RCA Records, simply titled Daughtry, has been out for a little more than two weeks and is currently ranked No. 3 on the Billboard charts. That’s two notches above the Beatles and three notches above Jay-Z. He’s made television appearances on “Regis & Kelly” and “Jimmy Kimmel Live,” not to mention the NC State Wolfpack pep rally in Raleigh and the Southern Sports Awards in Charlotte.

The window isn’t budging, so the 26-year-old surrenders to circumstances.

“Busy, very busy” is how Daughtry describes life on the road. “There’s not a lot of time to see the places that you’re playing. You get to the city and generally play the show and then you’re out.”

Meanwhile, the single “It’s Not Over” has been infiltrating the collective subconscious on airwaves across America, his band’s melodic virtuosity creating a tempered, hard-rock canvas for the singer’s vocal swirl of angst, sensitivity and emotion.

I got to see Daughtry with his former band, Absent Element in June 2005, back before “American Idol” made him a household name. I’m somewhat embarrassed to say the encounter made almost no impression on me. It was the last rock show at the Cathedral of His Glory up near Lake Jeanette, and a Christian emo band from Florida was headlining. I might have come in near the end of Absent Element’s set. I interviewed the church’s technical director up in the sound booth as the band packed its gear. My notes contain only this tiny morsel of information gleaned from a quote of the technical director: “They used to be a bar band and they turned Christian and stayed Christian.”

I bring it up to Daughtry, and he indicates that he remembers the night but offers no comment. As I recall, the members of Absent Element didn’t stick around to watch the headliner.

Several months after that show Daughtry and Absent Element parted ways.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet thing,” the singer says. “Those are my friends and that’s kind of hard to deal with. You wanted it to work out and it didn’t.”

The decision came before his audition in Denver for “American Idol” in January 2006.

“The label and the management held the auditions and they wanted to make sure they got the right musicians,” Daughtry says. “I had to sign off on it that I was okay with everything. [The band] realized it had to be more business than friendship. A lot of times you can let friendship get in the way of business’…. The label didn’t feel they were ready.”

A scant four months later, radio personalities and living-room television viewers around the Piedmont Triad were gushing about Daughtry’s talent, simultaneously rooting for him and predicting his rise to the top of the fabulously popular contest. The season also elicited comment about how thoroughly the South, and North Carolina in particular, has dominated “American Idol.”

Chris Kromm, executive director of the Institute for Southern Studies in Durham, noted in his “Facing South” blog that “one theory points to the South’s rich music tradition, and the fact that most forms of American music -‘ jazz, blues, country, gospel and their progeny such as rock – can be traced back to the region. The Southern church alone is a crucible that has cast many singers, especially the working-class, small-town kids like those who end up on ‘Idol.'”

Five days later, Daughtry would be voted off the show.

And yet rather than drift back into obscurity, the former Honda service employee cinched his spot in the music industry with a summons from Clive Davis, the legendary record executive who signed Janis Joplin, Bruce Springsteen, Billy Joel and others to Columbia Records, and who now heads BMG North America.

“The week I got voted off Clive wanted to have a meeting with me,” Daughtry recalls. “Whether I won or not, he wanted me. We had a meeting. He basically put the ball in my court.”

The singer brought a guitar with him to the meeting.

“When I told him I was a writer he was excited,” Daughtry continues. “He wanted to hear it. Usually they bring in outside writers. I played him my songs and he loved it, so he gave me a lot of control over the album.”

And now, from the vantage point of a national tour, the singer has some perspective on the Southern domination of “American Idol.”

“It’s worked out for a lot of people in the South,” Daughtry says. “For me it wasn’t exactly easy to get in the van and travel. For monetary reasons because I’ve got a family’…. All I can say is there’s a lot of talented people in the South, but they don’t get to see the light of day because of the area. You’re not in LA, where you’re exposed to the music industry, or New York. People don’t come out to these areas to scout for talent.”

Playing in bands around Greensboro didn’t give Daughtry much exposure, he says, averring that “there’s a lot of people out there that are much more talented than me.”

Then he offers this advice for anyone interested in following the path he blazed out of the North Carolina Piedmont: “I used ‘American Idol’ as a vehicle. Whatever opportunity is out there, you need to take it. If an opportunity is there, don’t be afraid to take it because it will damage your credibility’…. If that’s what you feel you should be doing, then figure out every possible way to get there.”

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