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Chasing Dreams

Mayfield Kentucky’s Kevin Skinner wins America’s Got Talent

Kevin Skinner of Mayfield went from ­chasing chickens for a living to chasing his dreams. The America’s Got Talent winner clinched the competition at the September 16 two-hour season finale when he sang Aerosmith’s I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing. The country music crooner beat out opera singer Barbara Padilla, scoring $1 million in prize money and a headlining spot in a Las Vegas show at Planet Hollywood Resort and Casino. It’s been a long, hard road for the 35-year-old father of two, and he was overcome by emotion when host Nick Cannon announced him as the winner. “If somebody would have told me a year ago when I was sitting at home watching the show that I was going to be on it, I would have said, ‘What world are you living in?’” Kevin says with a laugh.

America’s Got Talent, NBC’s hybrid reality-variety show, is a nationwide search for talent among a huge pool of amateur acts that include everything from tap dancers to acrobats to comedians. Contestants advance to the next round by getting the most votes from viewers.

In many ways, Kevin’s life is the stuff of the country music ballads he performs. He had a family to support at a young age, and making ends meet was often a struggle. When a back injury left him unemployed, he had a lot of time on his hands. He filled it by playing guitar, writing songs, and pondering what it would take to break into the music industry.

Humble beginnings
A high school dropout from rural Kentucky with no formal musical training, Kevin was the underdog of the competition from the beginning. His first time standing on a Hollywood stage in front of judges Piers Morgan, Sharon Osbourne, and David Hasselhoff seemed surreal, when just weeks earlier he was picking on his own front porch where most of his audience members had four legs. Kevin showed up sporting a scraggly beard, baggy clothes, and a ball cap worn backward that pasted stringy bangs to his forehead. His less than stellar appearance combined with a thick Kentucky drawl and all-too-­honest answers to the judges’ questions elicited snickers from the audience.

But the moment Kevin grabbed his guitar and started singing a heart-felt rendition of Garth Brooks’ signature song, If Tomorrow Never Comes, the laughter receded into respectful silence. As the camera panned the audience, viewers saw faces that had mocked Kevin moments before, now wearing expressions of disbelief and admiration. It was clear that this was no mere singer, but a poignant storyteller, capable of moving his audience to tears. From that moment on, viewers rallied round this musician with the unpretentious, down-home manner, and soon Kevin had a wide fan base eager for him to have a shot at the spotlight.

Kevin believes that audiences relate to him because he sings what he calls “real music,” songs based on real-life experiences.

“That’s what sells records,” Kevin says, “when you can connect with a crowd and make them connect with what you are singing with real music.”

As the America’s Got Talent season progressed, Kevin’s popularity grew, and so did the mountain of fan mail stacked up on the kitchen table at Kevin’s parents’ Mayfield home, all long-time members of West Kentucky RECC. Joseph and Jacklin Skinner received letters, even poems, from fans eager to see Kevin make it to the top. After Kevin walked away with the prize, the Skinners’ home was bursting with so many flowers it looked like a greenhouse.

Until Kevin made his singing debut on America’s Got Talent, Jacklin had never watched a single episode of the show. She recalls the day Kevin stopped by to tell his parents he was going to audition.

“I said, ‘You do whatever you think you should do, but be careful what you pray for because you might get it,’” Jacklin says. “What I meant was that I know the music industry is not all glamour and glitter. A lot of things have to be sacrificed.”

Kevin was prepared for that. Even if he never had a hit that skyrocketed to the top of the charts, he would rather be a man with a trace of thwarted ambition in his eyes than a man who never had any. He told his mother he didn’t want to look back on his life with regret.

“He said, ‘If time passes by and I’m an old man and I haven’t accomplished anything, at least I can tell myself I tried,’” Jacklin says.

“I think it was God’s will that he do this,” Jacklin says. “I think his voice and his talent are a gift from God, and that’s why he is where he is today.”

Kevin comes from a music-loving family, and he grew up on a steady diet of country, southern rock, and blues. He says throughout his childhood, many family gatherings ended with a jam session.

“There were a lot of times on Christmas we would sit around after opening our presents, and we would end the night out playing and singing,” Kevin says. “It (music) has always been part of my family, and I think it’s good that we could enjoy it together.”

Kevin’s hometown of Mayfield was with him every step of his journey on America’s Got Talent. Practically every business in town had a sign out front showing support for the local boy that was on the brink of making it big. Graves County High School, which Kevin once attended, hosted viewing parties where half the town was there shouting encouragement at the TV screen.

After his big win, Kevin knew it was time to thank all his hometown supporters, people who had been there for him not only during America’s Got Talent, but his whole life, people who were familiar with his humility and spirit of generosity long before the rest of the country. What better way to say “thank you” than with a free concert?

Kevin in Wonderland
After wrapping up a whirlwind series of television appearances on Regis and Kelly, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien, Kevin retreated from the frenetic pace of smoggy LA and returned to the tranquility of western Kentucky. On September 26, he entertained friends and fans from the tri-state area in the gym of Graves County High School.

Although the doors didn’t open until 4:30 p.m. for the 7 o’clock concert, fans started lining up mid-morning. By early afternoon, the line had wrapped around the building, but nobody seemed to mind.

For fans like John Stofel of Louisville, it was worth the three-hour drive and the six-hour wait in the bright autumn sun.

Stofel says Kevin has a rare authenticity in his performance that pulls in the audience.

“He has a heart for the song. He really feels what he sings,” Stofel says.

His favorite America’s Got Talent episode featured Kevin singing the Willie Nelson classic Always on My Mind, which Kevin dedicated to his father.

Before the concert, Kevin patiently autographed baseball caps, T-shirts, and even a baby (the baby’s outfit, anyway). Not surprisingly, there were a few Kevin Skinner wannabes in the crowd, and one even tried to sing for Kevin before being moved along.

Amidst blinding camera flashes and screaming fans waving signs that read “Vegas Bound” and “Skinner is a Winner,” Kevin calmly seated himself onstage and picked up his guitar. He opened the concert with The Way I Am, the title song on Merle Haggard’s 1980 album.

Even if Kevin makes it to the Grand Ole Opry someday, it’s doubtful he will ever feel such a connection to an audience as he did playing on that stage in his old high school gym.

Kevin says he hopes his success inspires others to pursue their dreams.

“I know there are people out there that have dreams like I did,” Skinner says. “I never gave up, and that’s a key factor in your success in anything you do. Be persistent. If you have your heart set on one particular thing, it’s not too far out of reach if you put in the hard work.”

By Tracey Too, Kentucky Living December 2009

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