Levi Watkins had a spark — and Blake Shelton heard it. But he didn’t expect to find a 14-year-old behind the microphone when he turned his chair around during Levi’s blind audition on the NBC reality show, “The Voice.”
He called the young man’s performance of Train’s “Hey, Soul Sister” an “incredible vocal.”
“I missed the second half — I was starting to black out a little bit,” Shelton joked, and when the song was over, he jumped out of his chair cheering.
The other judges, Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas and John Legend, told Shelton he was lucky to have snapped Levi up. Jonas, surprised at how developed Levi’s voice was, asked if he had a musical family.
The answer is yes.
And it’s because of that — in more ways than one — that Levi was on that stage that day. His parents, Jim and Amy Watkins, have both performed music over the years, and all four of their sons have grown up singing and playing instruments.
The whole family is talented, but there was something about the youngest they thought might lead him one day to a career in the entertainment industry.
They noticed the spark way before Shelton did. And that led them to a family decision to let Levi try out for “The Voice.”
But before they sent that first audition video, they had a lot of conversations about why they would do it.
“For Amy and me, what it boiled down to was we saw great gifts in Levi,” Jim Watkins said. “Though he’s still a very young person and has developing to do, we feel like he’s got a lot of potential.”
It’s a very unconventional thing for their family, Jim Watkins said. With their other sons, they’ve been able to support, encourage and teach them how to steward their skills in academics or team sports.
But with Levi, the question was — how do you prepare a young man who might have a career in entertainment one day if he chooses?
“The thought of that is sobering — we don’t feel like it’s a great environment,” Jim Watkins said, noting that he and his wife had both had positive and negative experiences in that world through the years.
So they decided that, if Levi could make it through to Hollywood, it would be a great opportunity to give him a crash course together as a family. At 14 years old, they would need to be with him 24/7 — it’s the law there, Jim Watkins said. “What better way for him to see what this is about than with us beside him every step of the way?”
While they were there for the blind auditions in September and then again for the coaching, battle round and knockout round in January and February, Levi made a lot of great friends.
‘Cannot boast in myself’
“I can’t think of any person we met there who was not just a really lovely person that we enjoyed being with and had a lot in common with,” Jim Watkins said. “But there were a lot of things that we did not have in common with them, so those conversations were great for Levi. He was able to see and grow in relationships with people he connected with and loved and cared about, but [who] were probably lost.”
Jim Watkins said it gave his son an even deeper compassion for the bigger world outside their fairly homogenous zip code in Alabama.
“We were able to go back every night to the hotel and have conversations about what we experienced that day, the things we saw that were different,” he said. “We were so grateful for this whole process. I think he has come away from this with a really holistic perspective about what is this industry, who he is and how he might fit into anything like this.”
Levi still has a lot of things to think about when it comes to the future. For one, he’s got other interests too, like endocrinology — he’s a type 1 diabetic. And he’s only just turned 15 this month.
His voice is still maturing, and he’s still learning, his parents say. He had only just tried out for the student worship team at The Church at Brook Hills, Birmingham, a few weeks before he found himself staring at the backs of the four judges’ chairs on “The Voice.”
“Before then, he had only played a few times, and that was in front of the Brook Hills student group,” Amy Watkins said, noting that in the seventh and eighth grade, they had encouraged him to serve on the tech team first before auditioning for a “forward facing” role on the worship team. “We wanted to help him keep a right perspective and still be his cheerleader and nurture his gifts.”
But even without much experience, Levi looked right at home on that great big stage in Hollywood, though he’s quick to say that’s not how he felt.
“Oh, I was nervous,” he said.
But he’s also quick to say he loved every minute of it. After his blind audition, he won his battle against Jamal Corrie singing One Republic’s “Counting Stars,” then lost the knockout round against Joei Fulco with Waylon Jennings’ “I Ain’t Living Long Like This,” though the judges told him he gave a “perfect” performance.
“It was really cool to get all the coaching and performance knowledge that I gained throughout the course of the show,” Levi said. “I enjoyed using the gifts that I have on that stage. Using what God has given me out there was really fun. It was also really, really nice to meet all the new people. All the contestants got to be really close.”
Opportunity to grow
Levi said he saw it as an opportunity to live out his faith in front of others and grow at the same time.
“I tried to approach it from the standpoint of, ‘I have this platform, how can I use it well?’ and then steward the platform that I’ve been given through this experience,” Levi said. “I tried to think about things like ‘What influence can I have on people? What good influence can I give?’ It’s helped me see that I cannot boast in myself in this at all because it’s not my gift that I’ve created or given to myself, it’s something that God has blessed me with.”
Wes Sullivan, Brook Hills’ associate student minister, called Levi “humble and kindhearted.”
“He’s a light-hearted kid, and so genuine,” Sullivan said, adding that Levi is a joy to have around. “In the band, he doesn’t come across as the kid who was on ‘The Voice.’ He carries himself well and represents Christ well.”
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