When Tommy Brandt was a 25-year-old singer playing bars and clubs in Highlands County, he never dreamed he would become an award-winning Christian country music artist performing in front of crowds of 160,000 at venues like CMA's Fan Fair and the Country Stampede Festival.
Last October, this Sebring High School graduate stood on a stage in Nashville at the ICM Faith, Family and Country Awards to be honored as the 2012 Music Evangelist of the Year.
Brandt is a singer, songwriter, music producer and ordained minister who has won 29 major music awards, including being chosen as the Inspirational Christian Music Association's Male Vocalist of the Year four times. Out of his six albums, 14 songs have climbed to No. 1 on the inspirational country music charts.
Sitting outside the 45-foot tour bus his family travels in for more than 10 months a year, Brandt reflected on growing up in Sebring, falling in love with his wife, Michelle, and the career that has brought him contentment and happiness.
"Tommy Brandt is the new and improved Tommy Livingston. Brandt is actually my middle name," he said of the changes that he made in his life after becoming a Christian.
Brandt, who started out as a roadie working lights and sound, said his success was a surprise to him. "It was like winning the lottery. One week I was in Florida working cattle, the next week I was on live television accepting the (2004 ICM New Artist of the Year Award)."
Born in Lebanon, Ind., Brandt's family moved to Sebring when he was 5. He describes his life as that of a "good ole country boy" who by the time he turned 16 was already living on his own and working cattle on a ranch in Central Florida.
"I lived out of the back of my pickup for a while. I needed some direction to get out of the hole I'd dug for myself," he said of the hardships he has faced.
It's those "real-life situations" that have become inspiration for the heartfelt songs he writes. "I've always been very good about putting myself in a storyline," said the cowboy in ostrich boots known for his welcoming smile.
One of those songs is "The Perfect Woman" from his newest album titled "Nuff Said." He said the song was easy to write because he married the woman he describes as "momma's answered prayers" and an "angel — God sent."
On his website (www.tommybrandt.org) Brandt said that it was when he met this "beautiful preacher's daughter that rocked his world" that his life and his music took a positive turn, inspired to live a good life, filled with family values.
Michelle, whose father was pastor of St. John's Methodist Church in the early 1980s, was unimpressed by the handsome, 6-foot tall cowboy performing with the New South Band at Café De Largo (now Don Jose's) the night she came in for dinner with co-workers from Highlands Regional Medical Center.
"It was love at first sight," recalled Tommy, whose perseverance finally got him a date.
The couple married in 1998, and Tommy began his solo career.
Now, the Brandts stay busy, traveling with their 11-year-old son, Tommy "Brandt" II, and their bichon, Boggy, and performing at over 150 Christian concerts, fairs, rodeos and churches every year.
"We sing at churches with 12,000 [people]; we perform at events with 100,000 people; we do revivals; he does TBN network; he is the guest evangelist on Cornerstone Network. We've been invited to Australia and Japan to do tours. It is a walk of faith, but it works," said Michelle.
They also run "Beyond the Music Promotions," a company that specializes in artist development, branding and booking for new talent in all genres of the music industry. Their clients include Hunter Cook, Isaac Cole and Aubree Bullock, all 2012 ICM award winners.
The Brandts come home to Sebring every year to spend the holidays with Tommy's 22-year-old daughter Amanda and to visit family.
In the past few weeks, the Brandt family sang and preached during a three-day revival at First Assembly of God and performed for over 500 people at a community outreach concert put on by the Wacaster Family at Under the Oaks.
"Each year we add a few more appearances in Highlands County," said Michelle.
On Thursday, Brandt will be a celebrity judge at the Heartland Idol competition taking place at the Highlands County YMCA, 100 YMCA Lane. The event that starts at 6 p.m. at the basketball court is the second evening of junior/teen qualifying performances and will include a special Valentine show.