Phil Stacey's defining moment on "American Idol" came during Country Week, well into the competition.
"Country Week was the first one that had anything to do with my background," he says. "It was my chance to sing music I could really relate to, that drew on who I am and what I'd grown up around."
His knockout performance of Keith Urban's "Where The Blacktop Ends" impressed even the normally critical Simon Cowell, who acknowledged that the Kentucky-born singer had at last displayed his true identity in convincing style. That night, a national audience got a close-up look at a singer who had truly hit his stride.
What America hadn't seen was the unlikely circumstance that had given this Navy veteran and committed family man the opportunity to turn dreams and hard work into a career that had been a lifetime in the making.
"A very dear friend asked me to be his best man," says Phil. "I was very honored and I said yes, but as it got closer, I had Navy duty that conflicted with the date and there was no way I could change it. Joking, he said, 'The only way I'll forgive you is if you audition for "American Idol" this year.'"
His friend's belief in his talent--something shared by many people throughout his life--helped convince Phil to give it a shot, something he would not have done otherwise. Navy duty also kept him from the nearest audition, in Birmingham, and while he was at the next one, in Memphis, his wife Kendra gave birth to their second daughter, McKayla, two weeks early.
"It was a coincidence," he says, "but it's something everybody remembered me by." Missing his daughter's birth became an affectionate reference point for everyone from casual fans to Oprah Winfrey, who asked him about it on her show.
Phil's path toward "American Idol" and his country music career began in a childhood molded by two equally strong influences. The first was the ministry, which had shaped both sides of his family for generations. Both his grandfathers were pastors and he watched his father devote his life to ministry, pastoring churches in Kentucky, Ohio and Kansas. The other was music. His father started out playing trumpet and keyboard professionally, later leaving secular music behind when he dedicated his life to ministry. Phil grew up singing in church, learning first from his mother, who had a major influence on Phil, as well as from his brother and sister.
Growing up in a pastor's home, most of the music the family listened to at home was Southern and Contemporary gospel. "The exception," he says, "was when my parents would bring in a country record and it would usually be a heritage thing, playing something by artists like Hank Williams Sr." The combination gave Phil an early, lifelong love of country and gospel that would be supplemented later by the pop and rock influences he picked up later in life. He wrote his first songs at age 6 and continued to cultivate his passion for writing and performing music throughout childhood.
Phil played gigs and entered contests, first with his siblings as The Stacey Trio and then on his own, winning a state-level competition in Kansas, where his family lived while he was in junior high and high school. He knew during that period that he wanted to make a career of music, often to the detriment of his other grades. His uncle, renowned artist Mitchell Tolle, encouraged him and told him that anything other than the goal or the vision would pull him away, "so I made a decision that I wasn't going to let anything else get in the way."
His parents' one stipulation was that he get his diploma, and so he was forced to say no when a Nashville-based manager with major clout approached him while he was still in high school. When he did get his diploma, though, his first priority was to find a way to develop a career in music, but most importantly to find himself.
"High School was not a good environment for me to be in," he says. "Basically, I was going downhill fast, so on the day I graduated I moved away to live with my brother."
His brother was attending Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee. Phil didn't think college was a way to reach his dreams of a music career, but he thought the experience of trying out for the school's highly respected Lee Singers, which his father had also been part of, would be a good one.
"If I was going to have any career in music," he says, "I was going to have to audition for something somewhere, and the Lee Singers were famous to me."
Then, the unexpected happened.
"I made the group and I was shocked," he says. "I thought, 'I'd better register for classes!' I took out loans and went to college basically to be in the choir."