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Mountain Home Magazine

To Hollywood and Home Again

Jul 01, 2023 09:00AM ● By Maggie Barnes

How far can a pinky promise take you? Isaiah Smallwood of Elmira made an impressive leap from a deal with his wife to a Hollywood stage, holding the famed “golden ticket” as part of his American Idol experience. A singer since the age of eight, thanks to his mom’s encouragement, Isaiah was not a fan of the concept of singing competitions.

“Reality TV,” says the twenty-eight-year-old with a wrinkled nose.

But watching the end of last season with wife Brittany at his side, she made a suggestion. “You pick who you think will win and I’ll pick mine. If my guy wins, you have to apply to the show. If yours wins, we forget about it.”

Then came the pinky promise which, as anyone knows, cannot be violated. Brittany’s pick won, and Isaiah was on his way. It would prove a far different experience from his years leading worship bands at church.

American Idol is not like karaoke night at your local pub. The application process is detailed and long, including an audition video submitted through exacting channels. For some odd reason, Isaiah decided to leapfrog over all of that and contacted an Idol producer through Instagram. He told his story and the producer said he should send him the audition. After that, things happened quickly. One night on Zoom, the producers asked Isaiah to call his wife into the room and then casually asked her if it was okay if her husband got on a plane for New Orleans to sing in person.

It was okay with her. Married for five years, Brittany has a quiet belief in her husband that some wives wear like a subtle perfume.

But Isaiah was “stunned.”

“I had been told I was a good singer, but I didn’t completely believe it,” he says. “I didn’t have a lot of confidence.” But that level of confidence began to rise in New Orleans, where Isaiah sang through three rounds and earned the ticket to Hollywood.

“That week in Hollywood was surreal, like a dream,” he describes. It was also rigorous and demanding, with contestants moving from one obligation to another, barely getting a night’s sleep in total for the entire week, the test of stamina all part of the Idol experience. His fears of a “game show environment,” complete with nastiness and backbiting among contestants, turned out to be totally off-base.

“I made friends for life,” Isaiah says. “More than friends, like family.” He indicates a chain of text messages on his phone from his former stage mates. “It was nothing but love and support and each of us truly being ourselves.” He also has high praise for Idol judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Lionel Richie. “They could not have been nicer or more encouraging.”

Isaiah didn’t go on to win American Idol—that particular dream ended on that Hollywood stage. But the experience has given birth to many more dreams, things that had not previously seemed possible. When he came home, Isaiah emailed the organizer of Corning’s GlassFest. He asked if they had room for him on the program. They didn’t...until an act cancelled, and they called him back.

“Singing on that stage, with friends from church and elsewhere, it was incredible,” Isaiah looks heavenward with a blissful smile. “A moment I never thought would happen.” That contented countenance comes standard with Isaiah when he sings. He smiles through most of the song, eyes closed and face radiant. That inner peace is a gift from God, he says.

“I trust God completely, and I know that He loves me and wants me to be happy. I feel his presence when I sing.” He covers songs of some of his favorite artists, like Allen Stone, whose “Give You Blue” Isaiah interprets as a message from God to say that He will always care for him. (And when sung in the corner of a local grocery store, where this interview took place, leads to the lady who is sweeping the floor to sweep the same spot over and over again, until the song finishes.)

“Singing for me is an expression of love,” he grins again, “It is a celebration of love and joy and togetherness.”

For the immediate future, Isaiah is especially looking forward to July 20, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m., when he will perform a free concert as part of the Music in the Square series in Corning. He calls it a block party that will unite the community in the love of music.

“If we just love and respect each other, this community can do amazing things. It’s not just Corning, or Horseheads, or Elmira. We are all one community. We need to come together.”

The last couple of years have been chock full of challenges, from job losses to the death of Brittany’s beloved grandfather, to the death of Isaiah’s father, to his mom having a severe stroke. Trying to make a steady living in the unpredictable world of music is not easy, and the young couple have their worries. But Isaiah knows now that “nothing is impossible.”

“I’m a kid from Elmira, and I made it to the American Idol stage,” he says with force. “I fought depression and anxiety. I learned to believe in myself. We can live our dreams. We just need to believe in them enough, and to trust that God is there for us.”

Two days before he passed away, Isaiah’s dad told him, “Success is not what you have. Success is who you are.”

From a pinky promise to Hollywood and back home, Isaiah has been on a journey to find out who he is. While the road ahead is shadowed and uncertain, Isaiah’s steps are sure. He now understands the power of his gift and feels a strong obligation to share that gift, and its message of love and joy, with all who will listen.

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