Stanfield singer aims to make the most of his upcoming American Idol opportunity

Fifteen years after Albemarle’s Kellie Pickler rose to national fame on “American Idol,” a Stanfield man is hoping lightning will strike again.

Dustin Curlee recently passed the initial online audition with producers and heads to Los Angeles this week to perform in front of the celebrity judges.

Having performed in various venues across Stanly County over the years, including winning Oakboro’s Fourth of July Talent Show in 2018, Curlee, 23, is hopeful that his opportunity on the 20th season of the popular singing competition can help propel him to new heights. He had worked for Carolina Fire Control in Concord but recently took a leave of absence to pursue his true passion. His goal is to eventually carve out a full-time career as a musician.

“I really do think that this is like my opportunity and it only comes around once,” he said. “So it’s make it or break it and I’ve got to give it everything I’ve got. Hopefully it all leads to good things.”

Dustin Curlee hopes “American Idol” can open more doors for him. Photo courtesy of Candace Curlee.

Growing up a performer

Born and raised in Stanfield, Curlee has always been around music. His parents are both singers and he has a few uncles who own recording studios. His brother Cody is also a singer and songwriter and the two often collaborate together.

While he never was part of any school choirs, he enjoyed bringing his guitar to school and playing in front of students and teachers. He also was active in his church choir.

“I guess it was fate for me to be a musician and a singer,” he said.

While he enjoys performing a variety of genres, from classic rock to country to folk music, he said he prefers the blues.

“I’m more of a soul singer,” he said.

One of his favorite performers is country singer Chris Stapleton. When Curlee earned top honors at the Oakboro Talent Show a few years ago, he did so singing his own version of Stapleton’s song “If It Hadn’t Been For Love.”

“I like to play in front of a bunch of people,” Curlee told the SNAP after the event. “I love my music and am passionate about it.”

Over the past five years, he’s been a regular performer at several bars and private shows in the county along with venues like Tiffany’s at the Boardroom and Rocky River Vineyards. He has also performed with Randy Travis’ brother Ricky Traywick and The Hatley Family, a bluegrass band from Stanfield.

Curlee has already written seven songs and is working on his debut album.

He hopes his music resonates with people and can make them feel good about themselves.

“If it helps one person have a better day, then I’ve fulfilled my duty here on earth,” he said. “I think that music is who I am and what God has led me to do.”

Dustin Curlee regularly performs at  venues throughout Stanly County. Photo courtesy of Candace Curlee.

Curlee most recently sang at the Miss Stanly County competition at the Agri-Civic Center, which he feels like might be a good omen for his chances on the show. Pickler, who was crowned Miss Stanly County in 2004, sang the National Anthem the following year at the pageant right before she auditioned for the show.

She ended up making the Top 10 and has parlayed her time on Idol into a successful career as a country singer and television personality. Pickler was inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in 2016.

“It’s kind of ironic that I am performing on the same stage she did,” said Curlee, who has never met Pickler.

Wes Tucker, who has been the emcee of the competition for many years including during Pickler’s tenure, sees several similarities between the two musicians. They both performed at numerous local gigs, he said, and had a hunger to take advantage of their opportunities.

Like Pickler did more than a decade ago, Tucker thinks Curlee is talented enough to make a name for himself in the competition.

“I have been fortunate enough to share the stage with both of them and I hope I’ll be able to says I’ve shared the stage with another American idol,” Tucker said. “That would be really cool.”

His hometown has also thrown its support behind the musician.

“We’re proud that he’s going to represent Stanfield and we hope he does well,” said Town Administrator Bridgette Helms, who noted he used to play concerts at the Barn Park.

Auditioning for Idol

Even with all of his past experience, applying to be on the long-running show was not necessarily an easy choice for Curlee.

Family and friends had repeatedly encouraged him to apply for Idol over the years, but Curlee, who has five young children with his wife Candace, never felt the timing was right.

“It was a lot on me just to do it and then all the worries that come along with it of not making it,” he said about why he had hesitated in the past.

But earlier this year, two days before the application deadline ended, Curlee — buoyed by the support of his family and the town of Stanfield — took a chance on himself and his abilities. He is actually the third Stanly resident to appear on the show behind Pickler and Shelly Burris, now Shelly Patterson, who was on Season 10 in 2011.

Once he applied, Curlee was part of an online Zoom session in August featuring at least a hundred other hopefuls who first had to impress a panel of producers before they would be able to perform in front of the three judges: Lionel Ritchie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. He estimates that around 80 percent of the people that were part of the online audition were from North Carolina.

Curlee said he was calm and not overwhelmed by the moment when he sang for the producers. This is because Curlee is used to performing online. One of the ways he has made money over the years is by live-streaming his performances onto Facebook Live.

When it came time for Curlee to perform for the producers, he sang “Ain’t No Sunshine” by Bill Withers, “Amanda” by Don Williams and an original song titled “What this Country Boy’s About.”

Candace and some of his children were with him when he received the news that he would be moving on to sing in front of the celebrity judges. To learn more about his life history, producers talked with his wife and children and Curlee even gave them a quick tour of his house. The virtual session lasted roughly five hours.

Curlee said the first thought that crossed his mind when he learned he had advanced was pure relief.

“It was like finally, maybe I do have a chance of making a career in music,” he said. “Maybe this is it.”

Candace, who was listening to him sing to the producers, said she was more nervous than her husband. Once the family learned that Curlee had moved on to the next stage, Candace said everyone began crying, including her husband.

He was given the choice of heading out to either Nashville, Austin or Los Angeles for the next stage of the competition. Curlee initially chose Nashville due to its close proximity compared to the others, but producers later called him and told him they wanted him to travel to Austin. Eventually, after more conversations, producers decided that he would come to Los Angeles.

‘This is his dream’

Curlee is set to leave for the west coast Oct. 15 and will be accompanied by his father Roger Curlee. The show will pay for his flight and his lodgings and he will be there for eight days.

While he knows little about what’s to come, he was told to prepare for many interviews along with a schedule full of late nights and early mornings. Curlee expects to be a little nervous performing in front of the judges, especially Lionel Ritchie, whose music he enjoys and who he refers to as “legend status,” but he plans to keep himself calm as much as possible.

Even though the judges are internationally renown, when it comes down to it, they are performers just like Curlee.

“They put their pants on the same way I do,” he joked.

He considered performing one of his own songs for the judges, but Curlee said he plans to sing “Ain’t No Sunshine.” If he advances along in the competition, he plans to perform his own music.

He and his wife have been watching episodes from last season to help prepare Curlee for what he can expect when he gets in front of the judges. He said his voice and style is most similar to last season’s Chayce Beckham, the soulful country singer who ended up winning the competition.

Candace is confident that her husband can go far in the competition.

“As long as he keeps his head and feet grounded, I think he’ll go really far with it,” she said, noting Curlee doesn’t care about being famous as much as he just wants to perform for a living. “He works very hard with his music and this is his dream.”

Dustin and Candace Curlee with their children, from left: Abigail, Lillian, Elijah, Evan and Zoey. Photo courtesy of Candace Curlee.