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This Mississippi pastor with 8 kids had never sung outside of church. Then he won ‘The Voice’

After winning ‘The Voice,’ Todd Tilghman is still an enthusiastic pastor and a father of eight. But musically, his life is starting to change in a really big way.

Todd Tilghman sings during the Knockout round of “The Voice.” Tilghman was declared the show’s winner on May 19.
Tyler Golden, NBC

SALT LAKE CITY — Before “The Voice,” Todd Tilghman was an enthusiastic pastor and a father of eight with little to no music experience.

After winning “The Voice,” Tilghman is still an enthusiastic pastor and a father of eight. But musically, his life is starting to change in a really big way.

For starters, he won a record deal and $100,000. Several people want to manage him. And he’s diving into the professional music industry — a world that still feels foreign to him.

“I’m like getting a baptism by fire right now,” the 42-year-old pastor from Mississippi said with a distinct Southern accent.

Todd Tilghman was declared the winner of “The Voice” on May 19.
Trae Patton, NBC

Two weeks ago, millions of people watched Tilghman win “The Voice.” And the show has put him on the map nationwide. But before heading to Nashville to chat with people in the music industry, the budding singer has been enjoying a chaotic-but-friendly slice of hometown life.

Since his victory, he’s been knee-deep in pies. Fried pies, apple pie, peach pie, lemon pie, chocolate pie, pecan pie and buttermilk pie — all tokens of love and support from the people in his community.

He received the key to Meridian, the sixth-largest city in Mississippi, and the place he’s called home since he was 14. The city recently threw a parade for his family of 10. Local radio stations are playing his music.

“I mean, people have giant stickers of my face on the side of their cars,” Tilghman said with a laugh. “I’ve lived here for so long … I’m certain that there is a percentage of people in our community that probably don’t like me that much, or maybe we’ve had disagreements or something, but the best part to me of all this has been how everyone has just come together.”

The past two weeks have been such a whirlwind for Tilghman that he has yet to fully process his victory — not to mention the fact that he made show history as the oldest singer to win “The Voice.”

Todd Tilghman is pictured during his blind audition for “The Voice.” Tilghman became the winner of the show on May 19.
Mitchell Haddad, NBC

“I have like a remarkably low heart rate … so maybe it’s sunk in and I’m just super chill,” Tilghman said. “I don’t know. I don’t feel like it has even sunk in that I was even on the show, much less that we won.”

When he talks about winning “The Voice,” the pastor uses “we” a lot. That’s intentional.

Without Brooke, his high school sweetheart and wife of 21 years, Tilghman wouldn’t have driven five hours to Atlanta for an open-call audition. He wouldn’t have flown to California and wowed all four judges with an energetic performance of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight.”

Without his wife, he wouldn’t have won.

Making it

Tilghman wasn’t going to do it.

He and his wife, Brooke, had just returned home from a trip to Colorado, and driving to Atlanta a couple of days later for a preliminary audition felt like a lot of work. But Brooke talked him into it.

So the pastor made the drive. And on July 27, 2019, he woke up early and stood in line like cattle for a shot to get on “The Voice.” When his turn came, he had 30 seconds to shine. He sang a part of Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos.”

To his surprise, he made the cut.

Tilghman isn’t the first person in his family to make it on an NBC show. A few years ago, his oldest child, Eagan, went viral for his cosplay skills, dressing up his younger brother like Pennywise the Clown from the Stephen King novel “It.” Last year, the success of that project led Tilghman’s son to the NBC reality show “Making It,” hosted by “Parks and Recreation” stars Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman.

Tilghman accompanied his son, who was then 17, to the studio. It was the first time he had ever been to California. Now, a few months after his open-call audition for “The Voice,” Tilghman was flying out to California for the second time in his life to audition in front of the show’s celebrity judges.

His audition was the first to air during the season premiere in February — marking the first time in show history that the first singer to audition was the last person standing.

Tilghman didn’t expect all four judges — Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson, John Legend and Nick Jonas — to give him a standing ovation, much less fight over him.

“I just sort of thought every step of this process was the last step and there really wouldn’t be anything to come out of it,” he said.

It’s not that Tilghman thinks he’s a bad singer. But until “The Voice,” the pastor had never sung outside of church. He also doesn’t play any instruments, and he knew that many contestants on the show have experience when it comes to performing and recording music.

But none of that mattered. All the judges wanted to coach him — making Tilghman’s plan of “going with whoever turns” a lot more challenging.

Todd Tilghman is pictured during the Knockout round of “The Voice.” Tilghman became the show’s winner on May 19.
Tyler Golden, NBC

For a moment, Tilghman thought about picking Clarkson, a former “American Idol” winner. Her belting-it-out style was a lot like his. But the pastor ultimately followed his gut and went with country singer Shelton, who dubbed Tilghman’s praise dance the “Holy Hop” during the audition.

“He really made me feel very confident in my ability to not only sing but also that I was someone that people want to hear,” Tilghman said. “He really made me very, very confident in that.”

Going remote

Tilghman’s season of “The Voice” was history-making — and not just because the pastor was the oldest contestant to win out of all 18 seasons.

When the coronavirus pandemic began shutting down TV production in March, it was unclear what “The Voice” would do when its pre-recorded episodes ran out in late April. But like its fellow singing competition “American Idol,” the show charted ahead and filmed remotely throughout May.

Clarkson filmed from her ranch in Montana; Shelton from his home in Oklahoma; and Jonas and Legend from their homes in Los Angeles.

Describing his own home as “pandemonium,” Tilghman opted to perform from Meridian’s Cornerstone Church — the church his own dad pastored for several years. While it’s a place of comfort for him, performing there was still a high-pressure situation. And as an energetic singer, it was hard for Tilghman not to perform live in front of the judges and a crowd of people.

“Even if it’s like me, and you’ve just sung at church your whole life, there is still a really tangible energy from the live audience,” he said.

But with the show’s producers and Shelton instructing him via a tablet, the singer’s family stood by his side and helped him set up and record his performances. Sometimes, his family even got to be a part of the show.

For his top nine performance, Todd Tilghman sang country singer Collin Raye’s song “Love, Me,” surrounded by his eight children.
NBC

For Tilghman’s top nine performance, he sang in the church classroom where he used to teach teens on Wednesday nights. His eight kids, who range in age from 4 to 20 — surrounded him on bean bags. They smiled and swayed as he sang country singer Collin Raye’s song “Love, Me” — although one of his daughters managed to fall asleep during the performance.

Tilghman speaks with more pride about his children than he does winning “The Voice.” Just a few minutes into talking about the show, he switched gears to talk about his kids — their ages, birthdays and accomplishments. So that top nine performance was one of Tilghman’s more emotional moments on the show.

“It just brought my whole life kind of full circle,” he said. “I also got married in the same room — basically on the same spot — that I did a couple of my performances for the show. To me it was really symbolic.”

For the show’s finale, Tilghman sang the MercyMe worship song “I Can Only Imagine.” That was Shelton’s idea. He and Shelton had discussed the possibility of sharing his faith on the show, but Tilghman didn’t want to force it. And he hoped Shelton didn’t feel obliged to pick a faith-based song just because he was a pastor. As time went on, Tilghman wasn’t sure the opportunity would arise.

“You never know when you’re going to get voted off,” he said with a laugh. “I wanted to share my faith, but it’s very important to me that I share it in a relatable way. I would rather you have lunch with me and walk away feeling like this guy loves me than I would preach a sermon at you.”

Surrounded by his family, Todd Tilghman reacts to winning “The Voice” on May 19, 2020.
NBC

For the finale, though, Shelton suggested that Tilghman return to his roots. So from a podium at his church, Tilghman belted out the worship song. Standing in that church the following night, Tilghman was declared the winner.

The pastor shouted. His kids jumped for joy. And Brooke, his pillar of strength, was visibly emotional, burying her face in her hands before giving her husband a hug.

“This is not something that I feel like I deserve, and it’s certainly not something that I just expected to happen to me,” Tilghman told the Deseret News. “I am so, so very grateful.”

What’s next

It’s been almost a year since Tilghman’s wife, Brooke, told him he would regret it if he didn’t audition for “The Voice.”

“When it came time to do it I decided I wasn’t, and then she convinced me to do it, so I did it,” Tilghman said matter-of-factly.

Now, that simple reasoning has driven Tilghman to a crossroads, where he and his family are figuring out how to balance the professional music world with his small-town life as a pastor.

“Now that it’s over and we’ve won the whole thing, my life is going to drastically change. I do not know the specifics of that just yet,” he said. “I am working really hard to balance striking while the iron’s hot but also taking my time to make good decisions.”

Because of Shelton, he’ll likely go down the country music path. Tilghman’s new song “Long Way Home” — a song that first appeared on “Songland” and was written by Utah singer Ryan Innes — debuted in full during the show’s finale. Soon after, it reached No. 1 on the iTunes overall chart and No. 1 on the iTunes country chart.

The singer has some gigs lined up in venues that are starting to re-open. But his first big step is to learn the ropes of the music industry.

“I sort of inadvertently jumped into the water, and I realize there’s a lot of sharks in there,” Tilghman said. “So I’m trying to get close with people who are not sharks — and who maybe know who the sharks are or know what they look like — to help me move forward.”

It’s a scary jump. But if there’s anything Tilghman learned from being on “The Voice,” that should never keep him from trying.

“I don’t mind telling everyone, I was scared the whole way,” he said. “You just do it afraid. You just never know what could come out of it.”