Kristy Lee Cook may be from Oregon, but she gave her AI appearance a hearty Texas try. The 24-year-old talks to Billboard on her experiences in the Lone Star State, being formerly signed to a major and her interest in martial arts.
Growing up as the youngest of three children in Selma, Oregon, when did music become an important part of your life?
I really started thinking about singing when I was 12 years old. I listened to the radio most of the time. My mom had some records and my brother played a lot of country music when I was growing up, so I was listening to country music because of him. He would listen to Garth Brooks, Shania Twain and Tim McGraw. I bought LeAnn Rimes’ album “Blue” and I bought some Jason Aldean. I never really had a lot of money to buy records. I’d rather buy stuff for my horse.
What happened at 12 that led to your being interested in singing?
My mom heard me singing “Blue” by LeAnn Rimes and she got me a vocal coach. She found a lady named Sarah Faith and I took some lessons from her and then she got me some gigs. The first thing I did was the national anthem at the Medford Rodeo. I wore a red, white and blue striped thing around my hat. It was pretty funny.
Then I opened up for Glen Campbell and Creedence Clearwater Revisited and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Then I got a manager and my career started taking off.
Not every 14-year-old can get a gig opening for Glen Campbell. How did Sarah manage that?
She had a lot of connections in the area. Since I was the “local singer,” within the vicinity of an hour-and-a-half, people had an idea of who I was, so it was pretty easy to get me to go open for Glen Campbell or whoever.
What do you remember about opening for Glen?
It was called the Brick Festival. I had a band backing me up and I sang six or seven songs and I remember choreographing my moves onstage because I was so new to it, but it was a lot of fun.
I met Glen Campbell and got my picture with him. He was very nice and said that I did a great job opening for him and he couldn’t believe that I was as young as I was It was a great experience.
At what point did you first consider having a musical career?
As soon as I sang the national anthem at the rodeo and then I did the concert, I liked being in the spotlight and performing for people. It was a lot of fun, so I knew after that.
Did your parents suggest having another career choice as a back-up plan?
They really pushed my music. I was leaning toward other things like softball and swimming and being a barrel racer. I always kept doing my music so obviously I was loving it too much.
Did you sing in the school choir?
I was home schooled, so I would get up and do my schoolwork and then ride my horse the rest of the day, so I was very lucky because that’s what I wanted to do. I went to every single school dance there was and played softball with the high school for four years. They let me sit in on classes, but being home schooled was a lot more fun for me because you can sleep in a little more and you get to ride the horses the whole rest of the day.
After opening for Glen Campbell and the other acts in Oregon, what was the next professional step?
I moved to Texas and found a manager. Her name was Marty Rendleman and she managed me for seven years. I performed at a bar called Cowboys. I sang the national anthem for the Rangers, for ranches, for charity events, for pretty much everything. I did singing gigs all over because Marty had a lot of connections. Then I went to Nashville when I was 17 and sang for Joe Galante at RCA and they signed me to Arista and I cut some tracks with them. They were never released and then I was let go with a couple of other new artists as well. I came home and tried to start over.
How tough was it for you, at 17, to be signed to a major label and then be dropped before anything was released?
It was tough, because you have a chance and then all of a sudden, it’s gone. But if that hadn’t happened, I never would have made it to where I am now. So I guess everything happens for a reason. I ended up moving home and then I auditioned for “American Idol.”
Where did you audition?
I auditioned first in San Diego and I didn’t make the first cut. I went home and didn’t have any money to go to any of the other cities, so sold my horse to go audition. A guy was interested in him and I could sell him and go try out for “American Idol” or I could keep him. So I had to sleep on it and it was kind of a rough night for me but I made the decision and I’m very happy with it.
You must have believed you were going to succeed at a second audition if you were willing to sell your horse to fund the trip.
I don’t like being told no. It just was weird to me that I didn’t even get a shot. So I didn’t want to end on that note. I wanted to go and give it another shot because that’s what Jordin Sparks did. I’m too competitive to back down.
You went to Philadelphia for your second audition. Did you change anything from trying out in San Diego?
I changed my song. I sang “Amazing Grace.” [In San Diego] I sang Christina Aguilera’s “Hurt” and then “Blue” by LeAnn Rimes.
Why “Amazing Grace”?
Because my voice suits it really well and I love that song. I didn’t know what to sing and the night before I called my parents and asked if they had any ideas of what I should sing. We all prayed about it and woke up that next morning and it was kind of weird because my mom thought “Amazing Grace” and then I thought “Amazing Grace” and it worked out.
We all know how important song choice is. Which of your choices were you happiest with?
“God Bless the USA” and “Anyway” were my best two songs. I might have changed “Forever,” the last song I did, because I was told it was not the right song, but I don’t think I would have changed anything before that.
You sang “God Bless the USA” when the theme was songs from your birth year and “Anyway” during “Idol Gives Back.” How did you choose those two songs?
I was researching songs and realized that “God Bless the USA.” was [originally] done in 1984. It was funny because my sister had called me within a couple hours and said, “I think you need to do ‘God Bless The USA.’ I was excited because that’s my dad’s favorite song and he fought in Vietnam, so it was a really cool opportunity to be able to sing it, plus you don’t get a lot of opportunities to do patriotic songs, so I was really happy with the choice.
“Anyway” was inspirational week and at first I was confused because I thought it was something that inspired us as singers and in that case, I would have done some upbeat fun western song, but after other people were picking these really inspiring songs, I realized I needed to find something country that’s inspirational. And my fiancé said, “I think you should do ‘Anyway,'” and I immediately put it on as my first choice and I got it.
How is life different since you were voted off “Idol”?
Everybody recognizes me now, so it’s completely different. People want my autograph. I’m not used to it, but I’m figuring it all out.
How do you see your future?
I definitely see that the future is definitely going to hold a record deal and an album and going on tour. I want to get my career going and get an album out there and start recording. I’m at the top of my game right now, so now is my opportunity to get things going for me again.
Are you interested in writing songs?
I do some songwriting. I am not very good when I write by myself. When I have somebody working with me, I’m pretty good about coming up with words, so I’m looking forward to working with a writer to learn how to write a lot better than I do. what I’m told I have a natural ability to write, so I’m excited to see if I can or not.
We learned on the show that you are interested in martial arts. How did that develop?
My dad was a Golden Gloves boxer and we grew up with him teaching us self defense. He has a friend that works at the Y.M.C.A. and teaches martial arts. So I worked with him and trained for seven months straight. It was a lot of fun and I worked with a lot of the guys who fight. It’s good to know if you’re by yourself, you know how to defend yourself. You don’t have to feel scared.
You’ll be working on your career – will you still have time to go a few rounds?
Oh, yeah. I love training with all the martial arts pads and the boxing gloves. It gets you in really good shape and I don’t like being on a treadmill and running in one spot. You don’t go anywhere. It’s so boring. This is so much fun because you get toned and it gives you confidence that you didn’t have before.