What's it like to be on 'American Idol' and live to tell about it? (Hint: It's pretty cool)

By by dianna wray/dwray@vicad.com
April 6, 2011 at 1:04 p.m.
Updated April 5, 2011 at 11:06 p.m.

John Wayne Schulz, 23, of Karnes City, was one of the top 40 contestants on the current season of American Idol.

John Wayne Schulz, 23, of Karnes City, was one of the top 40 contestants on the current season of American Idol.

With his cornflower blue eyes and a voice that could melt the coldest heart, John Wayne Schulz is one of those people - you know who they are - the one's everyone says should be on "American Idol."

Of course, the crazy thing is, Schulz actually was.

If you've been watching this season's show, odds are you caught a glimpse of the 23-year-old Karnes City native singing his heart out for the judges.

Until last fall, he never dreamed he'd find himself standing before the likes of Steven Tyler and Jennifer Lopez, listening to Randy Jackson tell him how he can be a better performer - but he did just that.

It all started last fall. Well, really, it all started when Schulz was 5 years old, and his mother walked in to see her son singing a George Strait tune and holding the microphone like a hairbrush.

"She said she thought, 'Well, he loves it. Let's put him on stage and see what he can do,'" Schulz remembers.

He started singing around the county, and over the years, everyone knew Schulz was the kid who sang. No one knew him outside of Karnes City, but in his town and in his county, he was something of a celebrity, Schulz said.

He spent his weekends singing at stock shows, beauty pageants and contests.

He was working to make it big, to become a musician, like his hero George Strait.

Schulz had other dreams though.

One was to go on a two-year mission, the way his older brother had, for their church.

"I finally get the call, and, you know, you can go anywhere in the world, but I got Nebraska," Schulz said, laughing.

Still, he was excited to be going on the trip when he found out his mother had been diagnosed with breast cancer.

He was torn. If he left for his mission, he might never see his mother again.

His mom told him he could go on one condition, Schulz said.

"She made me promise to audition for American Idol," he said.

Schulz went to Nebraska, and when he came back last fall, he headed over to an "American Idol" cattle call audition in Austin to keep his promise.

The first audition was barely 15 seconds of singing, Schulz said.

When he made the second audition - the one where each possible contestant is evaluated for personality - he was shocked.

Then he made it to the third round, meeting with the producers, who had been flown in from Hollywood.

They evaluated each contestant's look, heard them sing and asked for their story.

It was nerve-wracking at first, having all of those camera crews around, but Schulz said he got used to it. The contestants were even told to be sure to play up their emotions - lots of tears and drama made it way more likely you'd get on TV.

That was a slight problem for the likable, easy-going Schulz.

"I don't really do drama, so I guess I missed out a little there," he said, laughing.

Schulz started out competing against thousands of contestants from across the country. Between 8,000 to 10,000 people showed up for the Austin auditions alone.

By the time he had made it to the next audition level, there were 50 people left who received the golden ticket taking them to California. Schulz was thrilled to find he was one of them.

"They tell you to make a really big deal about it when you get it, but I was really excited anyway," he said.

Before he knew it, he was on a plane to California, about to meet the celebrity judges. Winning "American Idol" suddenly seemed possible.

The next round of auditions was about group work. Everyone had to get into teams, pick a song and sing it - with choreography.

Schulz's group sang "Get Ready," the soul hit made famous by the Temptations. As a guy inspired by the twangy song of country, choreography wasn't exactly his thing, he admitted, but he came through it OK.

"I actually surprised myself," Schulz said, grinning.

They performed in Las Vegas, which was as glitzy and awesome as you're imagining it was.

Then, came the next round of cuts where the top 40 performers were taken back to Hollywood to continue competing. Schulz made it through that one, to find himself, the boy from Karnes City, Texas, singing in an aircraft carrier while the celebrity judges watched carefully.

When the time came to announce who would advance to the next round, each performer walked down the length of the aircraft carrier to hear what the judges had to say, if they would stay or go home.

"It was a long walk. It felt like it was a lifetime walking down there," Schulz said. "They're sitting there staring at you with all of those eyes and cameras on you. I felt just about this big," he said, holding his hand just above the ground.

The judges told him they liked his style, they liked his performances, and they thought he had talent, but that he wasn't right for the show and would not be one of the 24 performers advancing to the next round, Schulz said.

Then he had to walk back down the length of the aircraft carrier to leave.

This was in December. In January, Schulz got to see himself on TV.

"It was surreal. That's the only word I can use," he said.

Schulz watched the program with his family, including his mom, who is still being treated for cancer.

He admitted he was disappointed not to have kept competing, but he still wouldn't trade the experience.

"I did the absolute best I could, and it was an awesome experience," he said.

He's going to continue trying to break into the music business, and his "Idol" time may help get him there, he said.

While he's used to people recognizing him in Karnes City, the blue-eyed cowboy was still surprised to find people asking for his autograph in airports and places across the country.

In February, as his story was filling the airwaves, Schulz was pursuing his other passion, team roping, when he got to meet his own idol - George Strait.

The famed country singer was running his annual contest when he came up to Schultz and introduced himself, Schulz said.

"He knew me. He said, 'Aren't you that guy from American Idol?' It was amazing," Schulz said.

To see Schulz live, head on over to the Crossroads Country Opry at the Jaycee Hall, 2905 E. North St. at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, April 26.



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