In the course of just a few weeks this spring, new Universal South recording artist Erika Jo put the finishing touches on her debut album, filmed her first video, released her first single, made her Grand Ole Opry debut and sat for dozens of interviews, including the "Today" show, following her April 26 win of the USA Network's "Nashville Star" talent-competition series.
She also managed to squeeze in her senior prom and her high school graduation.
With her debut single, the spunky, country-rockin' "I Break Things", already creating a buzz at radio, this petite 18-year-old, class of 2005 graduate of Wilson County High School (just east of downtown Nashville) now prepares to whip up the whirlwind even more by hitting the road in support of her brand-new self-titled Universal South album. She'll be headlining the 2005 Nashville Star Tour with three of her former co-finalists, Jody Evans, Jason Meadows and Jayron Weaver.
Erika Jo is the first female to ever win the top "Nashville Star" prize in the history of the show and its youngest contestant ever. In its third season, the show featuring Erika Jo's big win enjoyed the highest ratings to date. Her prize package included a recording deal with Universal South, plus several other impressive stocking stuffers--like a supercharged Chevy Silverado pickup that had a bit too much muscle for an 18-year-old to handle!
"I didn't get the one they showed on the show, the black one, because I'm actually uninsurable on it," she explains. "I've never gotten a ticket or had a traffic accident. It had a Corvette engine, plus it was a four-by-four"- two powerhouse components frowned on by Erika Jo's insurance company. So she worked out a trade for another Silverado that swapped some of the hoss under the hood for a few more goodies inside the crew cab.
"XM satellite radio with a Bose speaker system - I'm all over that - Onstar navigation, sunroof, leather upholstery with seat warmers...," she says enthusiastically, reeling off the details. "It's loaded!"
Loaded - just like her calendar for the coming months. But Erika Jo is no stranger to a full schedule. She's been performing for over a decade.
Born Erika Jo Heriges on November 2, 1986, in Angleton, Texas, she moved to the Nashville area with dad, Bo, and mom, Paige, when she was only 18-months-old. At age four she started singing with her father's country cover band and she was soon juggling homework with weekend performances all over the South, Midwest and East. It didn't take long before the solo spotlight gravitated to Erika Jo and her amazing vocal abilities.
By the time she auditioned for "Nashville Star" in November of 2004, five days after her 18th birthday, she already had thousands of road miles and countless hours of performance experience under her belt. But still, she says, she tried out in one of the initial 25 cattle-call "Nashville Star" auditions without a thought of actually winning. She never imagined she'd eventually be the one contestant standing after thousands of hopefuls had been eliminated, including the last rounds of ten "survivor" finalists, winnowed down one-by-one each week by TV-audience voting.
"I went there thinking, 'I just really want to hear what these people have to say,'" she says. She was hungry for the feedback from the live-audition judges, receptive to any constructive criticism they might have had to offer. "If I made the show or not, I really just wanted someone's professional opinion."
Even after she advanced to the regional "Nashville Star" competition, she continued to make plans for high school graduation and college. She even applied for admission to the prestigious school of music at Nashville's Belmont University. Just a few weeks before she was named as one of the finalists for the televised portion of the competition, she found out she'd been accepted.
"I honestly didn't think I'd ever win the show, or that anything, really, would come out of it," she says. "College was always 'plan A', and music was 'plan B'." Now those plans are reversed, at least temporarily. But she notes, "College is always there-I fully intend to go." She smiles. "But maybe not this year."
In the meantime, Erika Jo is getting a bit of an education in the heady ways of country stardom, like when she attended the Academy of Country Music Awards in May. She was seated, smack in the middle of the front row that included Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, Reba McEntire and Kenny Chesney. She excitedly reports how Faith passed her a Tic Tac, Kenny gave her the guitar pick he'd just used in his performance and Reba-her idol-told Erika Jo how she'd been rooting for her all along to win "Nashville Star." When Brad Paisley got up to accept his award for Video of the Year, the television cameras caught the moment as he paused to shake Erika Jo's hand and congratulate her on her win.
"It was so hard to believe that I was really there," confessed Erika Jo. "But seeing me in the front row on camera was an even bigger thrill for my parents."
With high school fresh behind her, Erika Jo easily recalls the good times she shared with her friends and favorite teachers, who remember her as a solid, hardworking, easy-to-like student. Despite her singing career now taking off like never before, in fact, she remains in many ways a typical teen who likes to eat pizza and hang with her friends, arrange and rearrange her collection of beloved stuffed animals in her Texas-motif bedroom, and random-play the growing list of tunes on her ever-present i-Pod. "The best invention ever," she says. "It's like having a radio station that you're in control of."
Still living at home with her parents and her younger sister, 14-year-old Shelby, she has no plans to move out on her own anytime soon - although she proudly notes she did just open her first checking account with her royalty advance check. She insists she gets no star treatment around the house just because she's "the Nashville Star" with a single on the radio, a new album and a video. She's still responsible for keeping her room clean and picked up, taking care of the family dog and other household duties, the same as every American teenager.
She dutifully kept up her senior-year school work, even when the "Nashville Star" schedule took her out of class - and away from home - for ten solid weeks. She returned to school only once during that time, just before the show concluded, for her senior prom - with one of her fellow contestants, Jody Evans, as her escort. "I think Jody and I only danced two or three times," she says with a laugh, "because all the girls were coming up and asking, 'Can we dance with Jody?!' But it was so great. We had so much fun."
Erika Jo's full-fledged return to school to finish out the last weeks of the year, following her nationally televised "Nashville Star" coronation, was met with understandable hoopla in the hallways. "It was so strange," she says. "I had teachers coming up to me, asking 'Can you sign this?', 'Can we take a picture with you?' I've got one English teacher threatening to sell my old essays on eBay!"
Her old classmates and former teachers will likely be among the fans eager to snap up a copy of her new album, a powerful, attention-getting debut full of soaring romantic ballads, wrenching breakup tunes, positive girl-power affirmations and sweet love songs. Erika Jo worked with Universal South Senior Partner and producer Tim DuBois in picking material for the CD. She points out, just for clarification, that she hasn't necessarily lived the dramatic storyline of each song.
"Some people will look at me being young and say, 'How in the world can she sing about divorce, or seeing someone on the street with her -ex, when she's only 18?'", she says. "If I can make you believe it, then whether I've lived it or not shouldn't matter." Take, for instance, the saucy, sassy, I-warned-you heartbreaker in the album's lead-off track, "I Break Things."
She may only be 18, she says, but she wants people to know she got her start long before her face started popping up weekly on television.
"I didn't just wake up a year ago and say, 'Hey! I want to sing!' It's all I've ever wanted to do. It's been a big focus in my life, even as a child. And I've been working at it for a number of years."
"When I was on the show, you didn't know if you were going to be eliminated next week, much less beyond that," she says. "Now I know I have a record deal, I'm going on tour and I'll go to the CMA Awards this year. Now that I've got these things for sure, it's just a matter of keeping them and holding on."
"I want to show people that I can do this and that they did not vote for me in vain."
She pauses, and her face spreads into a big, bright grin - one of not just happiness, but also of determination.
"I want to prove them right."