COLDIRON — The highway narrows after you turn off Harlan Road. Overhanging trees create short tunnels dappled with sunlight through the leaves, and the homes are from single-wide trailers to structures reminiscent of ski chalets.
This small Harlan County community, where the boundaries between Coldiron and Wallis Creek are a bit blurred, is where a voice heard around the world Monday was raised and still lives.
Jordan Smith, a 21-year-old Harlan County native, wowed the judges on NBC's The Voice Monday with his soaring rendition of Sia's Chandelier that had judge Gwen Stefani jumping out of her seat and Adam Levine saying, "I think you're the most important person that's ever been on this show."
The audition aired at about 8:45 p.m. Monday.
"Immediately after it aired, I looked at my phone, and it was just text after text after text, an unbelievable amount of Tweets and by the end of the night I had 400 or 500 friend requests on Facebook, so it was overwhelming, immediately," Smith says.
His secret was finally out.
The blind auditions for The Voice, where competitors sing for the celebrity judges in hopes of getting them to turn their chairs around indicating they would like for the singer to be on their team, took place at the beginning of July. Smith and his family and girlfriend, Kristen Denny of Pikeville, who were at the audition, were bound by a confidentiality agreement not to say anything about how the show went until after it aired.
"We were kind of going crazy," Smith says. "It was an exciting secret, but it was a huge secret.
"Just to see it was incredible. It brought back every single emotion that I felt that day, and probably for them too, because they got to be there — all the jitters, all the excitement, the way I was moved by the words that they said to me."
One thing Smith's story is not, is that of an untrained voice that just burst out of the mountains to international acclaim.
His parents, Kelley and Geri Smith, are both musicians, and his Aunt Amy Cottrell is also an accomplished musician who was extremely influential for Smith. He started singing and playing drums at church, House of Mercy in Wallins Creek, at an early age.
"I think our family's love of music and how musical our home was — we would sing in the car together, sing in the shower and when I went to bed at night — it was just kind of like a very important part of our life as family."
His first public performance was a piano recital, and then singing His Eye is on the Sparrow as a solo at a choir festival, all when he was "very young," Smith recalls. "I still have people come up to me and tell me they remember me singing that song, which I appreciate." Smith says the high-flying spiritual is still among his favorites.
At Harlan County High School, Smith joined band and choir, and pursued any other projects he could to help develop as a musician. His grandfather, who lives in Augusta, Ga., heard the choir from Lee University in Cleveland, Tenn., when it was on a tour through Georgia, and recommended Smith take a look at the school.
"He knew that I was becoming really interested in music ... and he knew that it was a Church of God school, and I'm a Christian, so that is something I was interested in too," Smith recalls.
He did look at a few other colleges. But Lee won Smith and his family over with its programs, Christian focus and the immaculate campus — Kelley Smith recalls visiting in the fall, and "there wasn't a leaf on the ground."
At Lee University, Smith became a member of the Lee Singers, the school's premiere touring group. He became a featured soloist, section leader and vice president of the ensemble that has traveled nationally and internationally, including performances at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama — "It was sooooo cold," Smith recalls — and a performance in May at the Vatican.
"Spending that time traveling with them and really growing as a musician and getting better as a singer is what prepared me to do this," Smith says. "It was the perfect breeding ground for this success."
'The Voice' opportunity
Lee has a bit of a track record on singing competition shows. Last season's American Idol runner up, Clark Beckham, is a Lee graduate. And Phil Stacy, also a Harlan County native who went deep into the sixth season of Idol, went to Lee.
Smith never auditioned for Idol, the show The Voice eventually bested as the top-rated singing competition show. He did sing in an open audition for The Voice the previous season, and while that didn't work out, he connected with producers and they approached him about auditioning for this season.
"That was a huge sign to me that it was something I should do, because the timing wasn't perfect," says Smith, who is taking the fall semester of his senior year off due to the show. "I felt like it was a door that God had opened, because I didn't go seeking it out."
Smith is a fan of The Voice, and had watched it and fantasized about what he would do if he got on the show. He has a message that he wants to get out about being true to yourself, even if you are perceived as different from others.
"On the show, they really highlighted the fact that I don't look like I sound, which is OK with me, because that's the message that I want to get across, that it's OK to be different than people expect you to be and not fit the mold," Smith says. "We live in a world that is hurting, where people disagree over things that don't matter and things that are on the outside.
"There are a lot of people struggling with who they are and finding acceptance. I am only secure in who I am because I know my identity lies in Christ and in my faith. While it took me a long time to accept that, I am very secure in that now.
"I want other people to be able to find security in knowing they can accept themselves, and they can break the mold and be different, and that your success can be measured in the joy that you have in who you are."
Smith wasn't bullied in school, he says, but he did struggle with societal expectations of what boys and men did, and that his interests took him in other directions. As a male with a high voice, he has also dealt with being mistaken for a woman, particularly on the phone, and stereotypes.
Even in music, he knows that his appearance contrasts with the pop-star image. That message, he says, went into how he appeared on the show — wearing his favorite cardigan sweater over a plaid shirt, his choice style — and the song he sang.
"It was a song that I knew if I could pull it off and do it well, it would be impressive ... it would give me an edge," Smith says of the Chandelier, sung from the perspective of a party girl who wants to flee her alcoholism. "There is a certain emotion that goes into the song, and after reading more about it and why she wrote it ... I think it has a message of hope in it, and the song itself inspired people that are dealing with different things, and I also wanted to inspire people in that way."
Gwen Stefani's hug
Being prepared helped Smith approach the audition with confidence. When the first judge turned around, country star Blake Shelton, he says he felt relief knowing that he would continue. But quickly, all four turned around, heaping praise upon him.
"It was surreal when it was over," Smith says. "I was like, 'Oh my, Gwen Stefani is giving me a hug.'"
Smith came close to joining Stefani team but felt a strong connection with Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, who said he also dealt with issues being a male with a high voice, and who expressed very strong support for Smith's message of individuality with his "most important" comment.
"I think he was genuine in what he said, and I don't think it was just a ploy to convince me to be on his team," Smith says. "I think by saying that, he agreed that my story was important and my message was important that I wanted to get across."
And Smith will have more chances to share. He will next be in the battle rounds, which have also been pre-recorded — and no, he cannot say what happened. If he has made it through the next two pre-recorded rounds, which start airing Oct. 12, he will compete in live competition for viewers' votes, beginning in late October.
Regardless of how The Voice turns out for him, Smith says he knows he will continue in music, and he knows where the credit for his success lies.
"Harlan's a small town, and I think sometimes people have a lot of negative things to say about this area," Smith says. "We have issues like everyone else. But I owe everything I am to this place, and these people, and these mountains."