A few years ago, in the heart of Meridian, Mississippi, the longtime pastor and father of eight had begun to feel “unsettled.”
“I spent the last five, maybe 10 years sort of living off the fumes of the last great leap of faith,” he recently told the Deseret News. “If you want to see something different, you gotta be different. I felt like it’s time for me to put my money where my mouth is and just take another leap of faith.”
So he began exploring options.
He asked a friend about real estate, looked into a multilevel marketing career and even considered becoming a barber. Then, with some nudging from his wife of 21 years, he auditioned for “The Voice.”
He didn’t have high expectations. Aside from singing at his church, the 42-year-old pastor had never performed anywhere. Compared to the show’s average contestant, his music experience was slim.
“I told my wife in the very beginning, after my blind audition, ‘There’s no way we’re going to win this,’” Tilghman recalled. “I was an unlikely candidate to even be on ‘The Voice,’ much less win.”
But in an unusual season that ended remotely due to the pandemic, Tilghman did rise up to become the oldest winner in the show’s history. It’s been five months since the pastor stood in his church, surrounded by family, and shouted for joy when “The Voice” revealed the news virtually.
Fast-forward to now, and Tilghman has just wrapped up a residency at a theater in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. And he’s still getting used to the idea that people would drive somewhere to hear him sing.
But aside from a few concert dates and a book in the works, Tilghman said there’s not much set in stone at this point — in part because of COVID-19, but also due to contract limitations that come with winning a show like “The Voice.”
“Ultimately, I’m walking away from the means by which I have supplied for my family … without any 100% certainty this will for sure turn out and work,” he said. “If I had my wishes, a handful of more things would be solidified by now. But you know, that’s just not how life works.”
So was going on “The Voice” worth it? Can people actually find success with these reality competition shows?
In the middle of a major life transition — and as a new season of “The Voice” has started up — here’s what Tilghman had to say.
The popularity of reality competition shows like “The Voice” doesn’t always translate to success for the singers being promoted.
While there have been success stories like Cassadee Pope, over the years, several of the winners who dove into the professional music world post-”Voice” didn’t gain momentum, according to the Huffington Post.
Separating itself from the trailblazing “American Idol” — which in its early years produced household names like Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood — “The Voice” focuses more on training people for the cutthroat entertainment industry than it does generating superstars, the Huffington Post reported.
“We didn’t really create the show to create a celebrity musician or make people rich and famous,” “Voice” host Carson Daly told the Huffington Post in 2018. “That was never really the goal of the show. We are proud to say that so many of the artists who have been on ‘The Voice’ in any capacity have quit their sandwich-making jobs and are doing well in music. And at the end of the day that’s winning, to us.”
On “The Voice,” contestants get personal instruction from celebrity mentors and coaches. But when a season of “The Voice” concludes, what happens next for the winner is largely in the hands of the label.
“Pretty much all the winners are picked up,” said Audrey Morrissey, the show’s executive producer. “There is choice amongst the label what they do with them, but we, as a television show, once they won, we’re not necessarily personally involved in their careers. We do everything in our power to prop them up, as we can, but that’s when it flips over to, really, the music business.”
Which is the situation Tilghman is in now.
Since winning “The Voice,” the singer has frequently commuted several hours from his home in Meridian to Nashville, where he’s been making connections with songwriters, producers and others in the music industry.
He knows this wouldn’t be happening if it weren’t for “The Voice,” but working with so many people — especially when tied to a specific record label and other contract stipulations — can make the process slow going.
In fact, Tilghman said there are people who desire to go on these reality competition shows for exposure but don’t necessarily want to win due to the “little caveats and agreements.”
He recently faced some of those limitations. In September, the Meridian Star reported that Tilghman couldn’t release original music at the time due to his contract with “The Voice.” The singer has since told the Deseret News he is free to release original music and that he’s pushing for a single by the start of next year.
“When you’re working independently, the wheels can move faster — but it’s more expensive. But music is for sure coming,” Tilghman said. “What I’m trying to do is just really be very intentionally grateful for every moment and everything that’s coming.
“Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes not so much,” he continued. “Your logic tries to attack you and say, ‘Your window is closing and there’s nothing you can do about it because of this pandemic.’”
For all of the uncertainty, though, winning a show like “The Voice” is huge — Tilghman is one of only 18 people in the country to achieve that feat. “The Voice” gave him a chance to shine.
But he doesn’t want that grand victory, seen by millions of viewers, to overshadow the successes that have come before or the successes that lie ahead.
So when it comes to “The Voice,” the pastor said he’s following in the footsteps of the Israelites who crossed the Jordan River on dry land.
“They set up 12 stones, they made a memorial there, but then they kept going,” Tilghman said. “And that’s my plan. I’ll set up a memorial and I’ll never forget what this has meant to me, what it still means to me and even on a really practical level what it did for me.
“But I mean, I’m not gonna spend my entire life relishing in the glory days of ‘The Voice,’ he continued. “I’m gonna move into what’s to be.”
Occasionally, when Tilghman’s family goes on a hike, his kids will start to grumble. The pastor has a reminder on hand for these situations.
“I have told them 100 times that adventure almost never feels like adventure while it’s happening,” he said. “It’s when you look back on it, you’re like, ‘Man, what an adventure that was.’”
That’s essentially the premise of an upcoming book he’s writing with his wife, Brooke. Called “Every Little Win,” the book chronicles the many victories Tilghman’s family celebrated long before the pastor stepped foot on “The Voice” — accomplishments like being able to adopt kids or improving mental health.
“The real truth is, the most significant things that have happened in my life so far happened before ‘The Voice,’” he said. “Before we were even dreaming of doing something like that.
“If we’ll pay attention, God’s doing all these little miracles in our life all the time — all of these things that every one of us are living but we don’t count them as a victory and a win like we should,” he continued. “And when you look back, he’s made really this beautiful quilt or tapestry out of all these little things. … You look back and you’re like, ‘Wow, look what we’ve been through.’”
The book has a tentative spring release date. By that time, another person will have won “The Voice.” To Tilghman, it’s just another reminder that his latest victory, while life-changing, shouldn’t be viewed as the end-all.
He’s got the book, new music and a potential move to Nashville on the horizon, after all.
But if given a do-over, Tilghman said he would audition for “The Voice” again — COVID-19 complications and all. In fact, considering the talent this past season, Tilghman believes he wouldn’t have won if the show had continued to film on set in California. He thinks the show going remote made him more relatable, allowing viewers to see him in his element — singing from his church and surrounded by his kids.
“I would say going on the show was definitely worth it,” he said. “No one in the world — not a coffee house or a honky tonk or a stadium of 10,000 people — no one in the world would know who I am musically had it not been for ‘The Voice.’
“I do have a lot of anxiety about the future,” he continued. “But isn’t that the adventure of it all?”