With the amount of talent on display, anyone could have won it, but Jarred Gravley did.
The 19-year-old Frostproof resident with the cowboy hat and country twang took first place and $2,000 in the sixth annual Heartland Idol competition Saturday night, which ranks competitors on vocal ability, stage presence and costume/wardrobe.
Gravley's score of 142 points out of 150 was only one point higher than second-place winner Amy McCoy, two points higher than third-place winner Shannon Marrero, and four points higher than fourth-place finisher Julie Temple, making it an extremely tight race. Mark Brignoni took fifth place with 130 points.
Gravley sang "Margaritaville" while dangling his feet over the stage with one flip-flop missing and strumming a guitar. That performance, which got the audience spontaneously clapping along and a few standing ovations, won him a spot in the finals, where he performed "Then" by Brad Paisley, pulling his young wife out of the crowd and singing directly to her while bringing tears to the eyes of the female judges.
"I've always thought you had it," said judge Vickie Jones, still choked up. "That was 'it'!"
"That was so moving," agreed judge Stacy Clark of WWOJ.
Gravley plans to use the money to help pay for his move to Nashville, where he will pursue a singing career.
The judges admitted over and over during the evening how difficult their task was, and it was apparent from the tight scores and the overwhelming talent displayed that any one of several contestants could have taken home the title.
"I can't believe how much talent we have in the Heartland," exclaimed guest judge Nancy Trautman, who along with her husband Bob Trautman, are title sponsors for the annual event.
McCoy's angelic voice, humble lyrics, and genuine stage presence touched judges as she sang "How You Live," by Point of Grace. "Kiss all your children, dance with your wife. Tell your husband you love him every night," she sang.
"You remind me of a young Karen Carpenter," remarked judge Mike Henry.
Trautman added, "The expression on your face just matched the song."
Earlier in the night during the Jimmy Buffett portion, judge Jim McCollum took off points for McCoy's performance of "Come Monday" because she was wearing flip-flops instead of the Hush Puppies Buffett claims to be wearing in the song.
"I thought the Hush Puppies had done me in," remarked McCoy with surprise when she was announced as one of the final five.
Marrero performed the most difficult song of the night, "And I am Telling You" by Jennifer Hudson from the Dreamgirls soundtrack. Her soul performance displayed her impressive vocal range, powerful voice, and ability to hold a note.
"It was a tough song. You nailed it," said McCollum.
The other judges agreed. "Girl, you brought it!" added Jones.
When Julie Temple's name was announced as the fourth-place winner, a wave of boos rippled across the audience and someone yelled out, "That's just wrong!" The crowd of approximately 950 people had burst out in applause during her performance of Martina McBride's "Anyway," and some stood up to give her a standing ovation.
"I have goosebumps!" confessed Henry after the performance. "That was awesome!"
"You knocked it out of the park," agreed Jones.
"Martina McBride is so hard," admitted Clark. "You nailed it. It was beautiful. You could see the emotion in people."
Brignoni did a good job dressing his part as singer David Cook singing "Come Back to Me," but the judges weren't thrilled with his performance.
"That's not my favorite performance of yours," said Jones.
McCollum added, "I wish I could say it was great. I can only say it was very good."
First place in the Heartland Idol competition paid $2,000, second place was worth $1,000, third paid $500, fourth paid $250 and fifth paid $125.
Saturday's finale on the Circle in downtown Sebring started with eight finalists singing a Jimmy Buffett song, after which the group was whittled down to five. Competitors Amanda Mercer, Julia Newell and Tiffany Elliott did not move on.
The five finalists then sang a song of their choosing and received their final comments and points from the judges. The 2009 Heartland Idol series is now over and information on previous winners can be found at www.heartlandidol.com. Photos from the events this season can be viewed and purchased at www.aspmoments.com.