While “American Idol” viewers know Chris Daughtry as a rocker who has shunned the show’s standard pop tunes for his own raw style, the 26-year-old’s hometown of McLeansville knows him as a father, husband, active PTA member and affable citizen.
“He’s a good neighbor,” said Abigail Lowdermilk, 9, a friend of Daughtry’s 7-year-old son and 9-year-old daughter.
On his block, Daughtry is the amusing, soft-sided father who cruises down the street on a scooter with his children. Before “Idol,” he regularly stopped by the local school to share lunch with his kids.
“He’s just normal,” said Chris’ wife, Deanna Daughtry. “To a lot of people, he’d just seem boring.”
“When he first moved next door, I knew he was in a rock band, and I was scared,” Abigail’s mother, Tammy Lowdermilk Sharpe, said with a laugh. “But as we got to know him, we quickly became best friends.”
With his signature shaved dome and facial hair, the casual Virginia-born man who wears a cowboy hat during his leisure times has brought a different flavor to “Idol” this year: performances laced with a hard, country-rock influence.
“He’s just a rocker at heart — always has been,” Deanna Daughtry said.
Small-town boyDuring a 1950s-themed show, Daughtry sang Johnny Cash’s “I Walk the Line,” a tune that speaks of staying true to one’s roots. Judges, including Simon Cowell, praised Daughtry for branding the tune within his genre.
Likewise, McLeansville, located 75 miles west of Raleigh, is a country town with one barbershop, one grocery store and no gas stations. Mimicking the clash between tradition and modernization, McLeansville’s nearest gas stop usually has a few horses hitched out front.
But it’s just big enough to support some hard rock.
The area is peppered with Daughtry supporters, signs and “Rock Your Vote” T-shirts. Recently, dozens of them, aged 2 to 74, gathered to hand out leaflets encouraging nearby residents to vote for their hometown star. Even more congregate every Tuesday at an elementary school to watch the show on a 65-inch television.
“People have united. He has really galvanized this community,” said Kirk Perkins, a Guilford County commissioner from McLeansville.
Fans are selling the memorabilia on behalf of the star’s family. Since the rocker went to Hollywood for the show, Deanna has undergone a hysterectomy and taken a new job. She has traveled across the country twice to visit her husband.
Daughtry isn’t the first North Carolina resident to find success on “Idol.” Popular 2003 runner-up Clay Aiken lives in Raleigh, and 2004 winner Fantasia Barrino lived 25 miles from McLeansville in High Point before moving to Charlotte.
Daughtry, who has never received vocal training, has dreamed of a music career since age 16. But with a family and a job, he performed sporadically with his rock band Absent Element at small local bars.
Those who saw him perform knew he was special. Everyone wanted to hear him sing — at weddings, birthday parties and town festivals.
Daughtry’s colleagues at the local car dealership, where he worked in the service department, would urge him to sing around the shop. He declined, forcing his co-workers, including boss Brad Anderson, to seek him out at nearby bars just to hear his voice.
“We all knew he was talented, that he was going to go somewhere,” Anderson said.
Even as he plays out his dream in front of millions, Daughtry has made a special effort to stay grounded. When he learned that his young neighbor Abigail made it through the first round of a local music competition, he called to congratulate her.
“He’s such an unassuming guy — truly down to earth,” said Jeff Lowdermilk, PTA president and coordinator of Daughtry’s support events. “At a time when we have so many bad role models, he’s actually a real good role model for the kids — for America.”