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Meet the Utah marine known for clean country tunes

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TYLER, Texas — John Wayne Schulz isn’t your ordinary cowboy. Since his two stints on the TV show “American Idol” in 2010 and 2016, the Texas native has gained a loyal following for his clean country tunes and unassuming demeanor. In 2013, the Utah resident also joined the Salt Lake City Marine Reserve Unit and became a flight instructor.

“When I’m not doing things for the marines, I’m singing. When I’m not singing, I’m flying airplanes. When I’m not flying airplanes, I’m training horses cause that’s my all-time passion. When I’m not doing that, I’m hunting for a wife. It usually doesn’t go very well,” Schulz said with a laugh during a recent interview with the Deseret News.

A family legacy

In coming weeks, Schulz will be spending a little more time with the Marines than usual. Although he recently found a sponsor to help him promote his music full time, Schulz has also been assigned on a yearlong deployment overseas for the U.S. Marine Corps. While he’s busy preparing for departure, he’s also wrapping up five original singles he’s been recording in Rosewood Studios in Tyler, Texas.

“It’s going to be kind of funny to watch because I won’t be able to stay very connected to the world while I’m gone on deployment,” Schulz said. “Maybe I’ll come home to a couple more fans than I had. … That would be kind of cool.”

Taking a year off from the music industry might be concerning for some, but Schulz said he isn’t worried. In July, his production team will release one of his singles every two months or so on Spotify, iTunes and YouTube until he returns home. And fans can also anticipate watching the singer’s first music video while he’s away.

For Schulz, it was never a question of if he would serve, but when. Coming from a patriotic family where every generation has served in the U.S. military from the Civil War to the present day, joining the Marines was an easy decision for him.

“I’ve always wanted to serve our country and serve in the military,” he said. “I knew that the Marine Corps was where I wanted to go. I wanted to be (one of) the guys that … would see the enemy face to face.”

Following his deployment, Schulz plans on hitting the road with a new band that he’s put together, playing songs inspired by the old Texas country genre he grew up with.

“When I write music, I like it to be centered around a principle that can be taught, whether it’s a principle of faith, hope, a principle of getting through a tough time — or maybe you’re just happy to be alive. You’re happy that the sun came up that day,” he said.

His biggest fan

Schulz has been playing upbeat Texas tunes ever since he can remember. Back when he was in junior high, his mom would drive him around his home state so he could play with his band in old dance halls that date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Although the musicians in Schulz's band were much older than him, the cowboy said their expertise taught him how to entertain a live crowd. So when he first tried out for “American Idol” in 2010, he was better prepared than most. But that still didn’t prevent him from feeling a little stage fright when he sang in front of judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler for the first time.

“There’s no, ‘Oh wait, let’s go back and let’s refilm this,’” said Schulz. “It’s a one shot, one take kind of experience and through that camera, you know that whatever happens, there’s 30 million Americans that are probably going to see it. And so you’re like, ‘OK, I better not mess this up.’”

It wasn’t the viewers, though, or the judges that Schulz was trying hardest to impress — it was his mom. A member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Schulz had just received his mission call in 2007 when his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. Despite her illness, Schulz’s mother encouraged her son to serve. But as his biggest fan, she also asked that he audition for “American Idol” when he got back.

Staying true to himself

Schulz's first “American Idol” audition went well enough to earn him a trip to Hollywood, but he was cut from the show shortly after arriving. This, however, turned out to be a blessing, he said, since it allowed him to spend more time with his mother, who passed away shortly afterward. A few years later, Schulz decided to give "American Idol" another try and in 2016, he auditioned for Keith Urban, Jennifer Lopez and Harry Connick Jr. Singing “The Dance” by Garth Brooks in honor of his mom, he once more made it to Hollywood, where, as before, he was cut before becoming a finalist. Still, Schulz said he’s grateful for the experiences he had on “American Idol” that taught him to stay true to himself.

“The producers on the show wanted me to change the music I was singing and they wanted to change my dress — the way I looked. And I grew up in Texas a cowboy. I always wear a nice button-up shirt tucked in with a nice pair of pants, and my cowboy hat and my boots,” he said, noting that the TV show had a different vision of him than he did. “They wanted (me) to be a little more pop country … put a t-shirt on, do your hair, have a chain hanging out of your pockets — and that wasn’t me.”

So, even though he may not have made it to the finals of “American Idol,” Schulz said he doesn’t mind.

“I think the biggest takeaway that I learned was you need to hold yourself to your standard and not let off of that, even if it means fame and fortune,” he said. “And so that was a tough one, but I’m very happy. I was very happy to get on that airplane and go home and know that I didn’t change who I was.”

Now, Schulz can pursue the type of music he enjoys most — composing melodies and lyrics to his original songs. And for his demo tracks, the cowboy even records the bass and drums before going to the studio.

Before his deployment, Schulz has been collaborating with some of the top musicians in the industry, including artists who have worked with the Eagles, Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood. Inspired by singers such as George Strait, Alan Jackson and Brad Paisley, Schulz said there probably won’t be much time for songwriting overseas, but he has no regrets.

“Sacrificing a year of my life to serve my country — it’s no sacrifice at all. I’m honored to do it. I feel very blessed to be where I’m at in my life,” he said. “I’m turning in my guitar for a gun.”