From Southern hills to the Hollywood lights

Musical artist gets major break with TV network as platform

by Lainey Millen  Special Assignments  specialassignments@goqnotes.com
Published: April 14, 2012 in A&E / Life&Style, Featured Stories

Across the globe, a variety of talented musical artists and vocalists hope to find a conduit into the Big Show — being showcased on national television, as well as growing a larger-than-life persona that would increase numbers at concerts to throngs of devoted fans.

This journey is not always easy, nor is it free from the challenges that beset the entertainment industry. Struggles abound. Producers and record company executives say no. Gigs at local clubs may be few and far between. Bills have to be met and sometimes artists resort to sleeping in their car because they don’t have enough money otherwise to survive.

In an effort to help foster new talent, shows like “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “The XFactor” and “The Voice” bring to the stage a boatload of superstar wannabes. Some have the chops to make it big, as seen by Kelly Clarkson, Carrie Underwood, Clay Aiken, Jennifer Hudson and Adam Lambert. Others have a modest career afterward. But, without these shows, these executives would be hard pressed to find new, raw artists from which to develop big careers. These wide nets form a quicker way to cut through a swarth of people who are looking for a chance, a break. Industry executives have seen how this formula works and how successful it can be. One such master is Mark Burnett, a television producer who has brought shows, such as successful ventures like “The Apprentice” and “Survivor,” to viewers everywhere. Last year, he and his organization brought “The Voice” to the U.S. It was modeled after “The Voice of Holland” and it debuted on April 26, 2011 on NBC, with Carson Daly as host and Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo Green, Adam Levine and Blake Shelton as coaches. These top-of-the-charts coaches nurture aspiring artists as they compete for the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for the winner — a contract with Universal Republic and $100,000.

On a dare by Chris Monteleone with whom she had recorded two CDs at Sound Box Studios in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., one such contender downloaded an audition to YouTube for the show’s producers, never expecting to ever hear from them. When she got a call an hour later that she’d been selected to come to Hollywood for the blind auditions round, she was really surprised, shocked and elated. But, she was still a little skeptical. She was in her 40s and has been playing at clubs and bars in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., as well as other venues regionally and nationally for decades. She’d have to see how this played out.

Early days

So, who is this artist and what makes her tick?

Beverly McClellan was born in Kingsport, Tenn., and lived in Gate City, Va., just over the border until she was 13, when she, her mother and stepdad, headed to Florida. She was blessed with a set of lungs that could belt out blues tunes, her favorite genre, as well as rock. This bald, bodacious and beautiful singer expresses herself in a sometimes vocal, sometimes reserved demeanor. She learned at an early age that there was no place for an ego at church. So, she developed a respectful manner. Rest assured, however, she exudes fearlessness. She learned from early on that reverence was something to be embraced. In fact, she loved the land from whence she came. Her most cherished memories as a child were going to her Uncle Bill’s farm in Hiltons, Va., everyday after 3 p.m. when he got off work where she fed horses, pigs and cows and even hunted with a passel of dogs. She thoroughly enjoyed the times at the farm where she was able to do chores with her uncle who was a U.S. Postal Service carrier. Her mother, who had a passion for bluegrass, played piano at church and McClellan was not allowed to listen to rock ’n roll, nor was she allowed to watch television, with the exception of “Hee Haw” and a few other similar programs. Her favorite singer back in those days was Dolly Parton who was on the “Porter Waggoner Show,” which she was also granted permission to watch. She said that Parton was the person who inspired her and instilled in her a love of music. She thought they were similar in that both were girls from the sticks. As a child, McClellan ventured with family to the Carter Family Fold twice a month to listen to gospel performances. Her Papaw thoroughly enjoyed it. At the age of nine, while listening to them perform, she had an opportunity to sing “Amazing Grace” alongside Mother Maybelle Carter, a masterful county matriarch, not realizing that this was an impressive feat for one so young. She had no idea how important this Carter legend was to the music industry. “I was just a kid. I didn’t know,” she said. As an adult looking back on this opportunity, she realized just what a rare privilege it was to have had this chance. McClellan played Carter Family songs on a record player and used a hairbrush as a microphone while she “performed” as she fostered her musicality.

At her parents’ farm, what you caught you ate. She said “you’d have to ask what was for dinner.” This did not always sit well with McClellan, so she’d meander over to her Mamaw’s house to eat fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, carrot cake and other southern fare. She liked that more than the gamey things that occupied her mother’s kitchen.

Early influences

McClellan loved her first rock album that she was allowed to buy, the “Grease” soundtrack with John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John. That followed with Donna Summer and her “Hot Stuff” tune and Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler.” Journey (which spearheaded her move to the piano) and Bob Seeger inspired her for a long time as she began to develop her craft and style. She did not find her way to the blues until her late 20s or early 30s when she heard her all-time favorite artist, Etta James. “This is what I want to be. This is how I want to write and how I want to be on stage. This is it for me,” she recounted. To this day, her number one genre of music of choice is the blues which she says “is the truth.”

All of this was part of her finding herself while she worked as a radiologist after college coursework and also trained as a dental assistant. In fact, she never went to a certified school, but was mentored under the guiding hands of a dentist who saw promise in her. She took the test and passed. She spent time as a dental assistant and hygienist. But, that did not satisfy her passion for music. Her voice was powerful and she had an incredible stage presence that was reminiscent of Janis Joplin, as well as other talented musical icons. She was not going to live her life in fear, so she continued to pursue her dream.

She never had any questions about her sexuality. She knew she always “liked girls better. I liked to hit boys and play with them and be their best friend.” She has never hidden her orientation and “would have lived it as loud as I live it now,” had she been in conservative Southwest Virginia instead of liberal Florida as a teenager. Even at 13, with a wild hairdo and her Papaw’s trench coat, no one ever said anything to her. “She sings so pretty,” congregants would say as she attended church. She says that she has a relationship with God and feels that He would think that she is “so interesting,” that she was okay just the way He made her and would welcome her into Heaven.

Nowadays, she hopes that when she gets to Heaven she will get to meet James and play music with her “in the by and by.”

Lightening strike

Years later, she would walk onto a stage on a nationally televised show. Her strength was apparent as she sang for “The Voice” coaches and hoped for a chance. Aguilera was one of those who heard her strong, rocking sound and wanted her on her team. McClellan joined her and the clock began ticking in a bid to get the final prize.

So, what was it like to be an out lesbian on a competition show such as this? McClellan said that it was never an issue. Entertainment Weekly wrote that “The Voice” was “relaxed about being gay-friendly.” She added that the producer, Burnett, was always embracing toward the gay and lesbian cast members. He was not homophobic. And, he made sure that everyone was greeted with warmth, in addition to handled with dignity. McClellan was never asked to be anything other than herself. Had she been asked to do anything different, she said that she would have left.

Admitting that being on a reality TV show is challenging, she added that “you have to want it.” Fear had no real place if a win were to be had. A “balls to the wall, go for it” mentality had to be prevalent. And, she got that urging from her coach, Aguilera, who was proud to have her on her team. Aguilera told her in a one-on-one to be “you and no one else.” She loves all of the coaches and joked that she’d like to take Shelton out to the woods to hunt.

Why in today’s world would a show contestant have to hide one’s authentic self? It seems to this writer that “The Voice” is one place that presses against the norm of cloaking the sexuality of its contestants, at least it seems like that. Who remembers the speculation in Season 2 of “American Idol” about Clay Aiken? It seemed that its show’s producers were more comfortable with shadowing the gay-ness, rather than creating a space for the cast to be who they were. Now Aiken is an out performer and activist. He’s even done a short video against Amendment One.

No one would ever doubt that Adam Lambert was gay. And, he never really hid it either. However, it was not until his season of “American Idol” was almost complete and wrapped, that he became verbal about his sexual orientation. The tabloids had been relentless in exposing his past.

Since “The Voice” is on an NBC Universal network channel, it further exemplifies the brand with its other cable sisters such as Bravo. It is seasoned quite well with many shows that feature out members of the LGBT community. Remember that Bravo gave us “Queer Eye on the Straight Guy.” Over the years, it has featured cast members Jeff Lewis, an interior designer and house flipper, Tabatha Coffey, the take-over mistress, Jackie Warner, a determined personal trainer, and Andy Cohen, a talk show host. “Top Chef” contestants over flow the pot, “Million Dollar” realtors abound.

Heidi Klum’s “Project Runway,” which began on Bravo and is now on Lifetime, has never hidden the sexual identity of its cast members. It takes a “fierce” (see: Christian Siriano) stand against such practices.

Wikipedia lists around 100 reality shows that have featured LGBT cast members dating back to 1973 with Lance Loud on “An American Family.” This documentary that ran on PBS was a groundbreaking series. It was not until 1992 that “The Real World” franchise began what has now seen over 25 people occupying the illustrious spot at cities across the nation. A number of the shows listed are not competitive in nature, but network hopes for cutting edge programming outweighed concerns over bigotry.

Although not in the reality television specter, network shows on ABC Family and Teen Nick also sport many gay and lesbian characters in real-world-like relationships and with issues that are familiar in today’s society.

Fast forward

Today, McClellan is touring with many staple acts, such as B.B. King. She was also nominated as an Outstanding Music Artist for the 23rd Annual GLAAD Media Awards. She plays more than 10 instruments, including guitar, trumpet, French horn and a host of other fretted and percussive devices.

What’s McClellan’s message to anyone on going for the gold? “Don’t fear life. Love it. Live it,” she expressed. That message comes out loud and clear on her own body. Artwork on her upper chest reads “Fear Nothing.” This is also the title of her recent CD that sports a variety of tunes, from the energetic to the soulful. Also, adorning her body is a tattoo of a microphone with a peacock. McClellan says that she had to get that one after her experience on “The Voice.” Of course, the peacock represents the NBC logo and the microphone symbolizes her love of music and her singing career.

She is forever indebted to Burnett (whom she says is one of the most lovely men one could ever meet) and the rest of the cast, crew and staff for her positive experience. She says she has made life-long friendships and knows that she could call upon not only Aguilera, but any of the other coaches with whom she became quite close. In fact, because of the tight community a production of this nature creates, everyone became like family. “No one can do you better than you,” Aguilera told McClellan. Sound advice for anyone wanting to enter into an environment such as “The Voice.” At the end, she netted a third-place finish, but felt like a winner.

Her latest album was recorded at House of Blues studio, Enciono, Calif.

McClellan says that if she had a chance to work with a contestant from one of the other singing shows, working with Adam Lambert would be desirable. She loves his voice and his crazy energy. She thought that their voices would make for an interesting mashup.

Her talents and her journey can best be summed up from “I Will Never Forget” on her latest CD. It says, “Them Tennessee Hills sure knew how to raise me/To the woman I am, with a song in my heart/My momma sang to me tender, soul-felt music/And gospel from the hills is a mighty fine way to start.” McClellan sure has had a lucky break on her sojourn and her life so far has been the inspiration to carry her forward, singing “Hold on to the ones that complete your presence.” : :

Images by Gil Croy, Mark Norberg and V. Michelle Oprisi