The July 7 airing of NBC's America's Got Talent was a triumphant moment for singer-songwriter Benton Blount, who sailed through the audition round with the enthusiastic support of all four of the show's celebrity judges. For country radio, it may have served as a reminder of a talented artist who once slipped through the cracks of the Nashville system.
Radio was just getting to know Blount when his luck changed five years ago. He had been signed to fledgling indie label Golden Music Nashville for two years at that point, and was finally getting his shot in the spring of 2010 when the label abruptly shut down. He was six weeks -- and more than 50 station visits -- into his radio tour at the time, and less than a week away from the add date for his debut single. In a cruel twist to his already heartbreaking story, that single, "Carolina," became a chart-topping hit for Parmalee three years later.
In performing on America's Got Talent, where he has now advanced to the second round, Blount joins a growing group of former Nashville label signees who went on to become finalists on TV talent shows, including AGT's Emily West (formerly signed to Capitol), American Idol's Kree Harrison (Lyric Street) and The Voice's Meghan Linsey (Big Machine).
After AGT producers saw a video of Blount performing, he got the chance to initially audition for them via Skype, where he took a risk by playing an original song he wrote called "Remember." He explains, "It was the song that actually brought me to Nashville the first time when I signed my record deal, and it's a song that's really close to me. So I knew that [by] singing it they would see exactly who I was as an artist, even if that wouldn't be the song they'd want me to play on the show." From there, he was brought to New Jersey to play for the judges and a live audience in the performance of Dobie Gray's "Drift Away" viewers saw on July 7.
He describes the backstage scene at the show as carnival-like, with hundreds of performers of all types waiting to audition in a holding room. "The difference between a singing competition and this is that in singing you're up against other singers, so you know what to expect and what to plan for," he says. "I walked into, basically … it looked like a backstage area of a circus, because you had contortionists doing their routines, and guys juggling and guys practicing magic, and then you've got me walking in with a guitar like, 'I'm here to sing.'
"I was intimidated," he continues. "I looked around the room for singers and musicians, because I wanted to be around somebody that I at least had some common ground with. I quickly found a guy who was sitting there with no guitar or nothing, but I could tell he was a musician because he had the same 'holy cow' face that I had on."
When he finally got in front of the judges, Blount explained that he was a full-time musician and a stay-at-home dad to 2-year-old son Jaxon (with wife Ashley, a paralegal). But he knew he had the surprise factor on his side, noting that as a biracial, bald, bearded and heavily tattooed man, he doesn't look the part of a typical country singer.
"Everybody lost their minds because I walked out in a tight T-shirt, and I have tattoos and a beard and bald head and a wallet chain," he says. "I think they thought I was going out to play a rock'n'roll song. So the image definitely didn't match the job title at all. That's what made me unique, I think."
When he started singing, says Blount, he couldn't tell whether it was going to go well or not, "but the second line of the song was when I really project. I would be willing to put money on the fact that out of the male vocalists in country music right now, I'm probably louder than almost every one of them. So when I hit that note it literally went from quiet, 'Let's figure this guy out,' to standing ovation." From there, he says, the audience "proceeded to sing every word of the song with me until the end."
In his comments afterward, Blount says judge Howard Stern questioned why the country music industry hadn't given him a chance. That's something the artist himself has long wondered about too.
While his initial Nashville label experience ended badly, Blount is anything but bitter, saying, "I love everything about Nashville, even the business side of it, as dirty as it can get … I've seen way too many people get overly jaded from an experience [there,] and it kind of cost them their career. I try to avoid that.
"I don't sit around and think, 'I can't believe they screwed me over' in [that] town," he continues with a laugh. "I went through that phase for about a week, and then after about a half a bottle of Jack Daniel's I was over it."
On the show, he also downplays his experience in Music City. "I didn't want to paint a negative picture about it," he explains. "The producers know the story, but as far as me sharing it with the public onstage, I didn't really feel like it was the right time just to take the hammer out and say, 'I just got the crap kicked out of me for no reason in Nashville, and they never really gave me a chance after that point.' "
But his success on the show, says Blount, confirms "what my heart and my mind has already told me, that … the people who even toyed around with the idea of signing me to a [Nashville label] deal and then walked away for some reason missed out on something. It's been a mission of mine ever since then to prove them wrong. This is my way of doing it without having to go through the hoops."
Regardless of whether he ultimately makes it to the finals in September, Blount knows the experience will be beneficial to his career, because he'll be exposed to a different group of people that have never heard of him before.
While he's not permitted to talk on the record about what he'll sing in his second televised round on July 28, watch for a surprising song choice from the classic country catalog. "I wanted to make sure I laid it all out on the table when I went out there," he says of his appearances on the show. "It's not like playing a normal concert where I'll have another one next week. This is a one-shot thing for me."
This article first appeared in Billboard's Country Update -- sign up here.