When the phone rang, the woman explained she was a producer for a new ABC-TV show, “Rising Star,” and invited him to audition.
Austin French should have jumped for joy.
Instead, he looked at the calendar.
It was April 1.
No thank you, he told her, and hung up.
“It was April Fool’s Day,” he said. “I thought one of my friends was playing a joke on me.”
When he realized it wasn’t a prank, he wondered if he had just made the biggest mistake of his life. He scrambled for the number on his caller ID. He told her he would be there, and he wasted no time traveling the 182 miles from Tifton to Atlanta the next day.
A month later, he got a call back.
“They told me to come to L.A.,” he said. “And the rest is history.”
History is still being written. Two weeks ago Sunday, the 20-year-old played his guitar and sang “Georgia On My Mind” in the company of host Josh Groban, judges Brad Paisley, Kesha and Ludacris -- and a national television audience.
Austin grew up in Cordele, the “watermelon capital of the world.” This certainly was bigger than any watermelon patch he had ever seen. People were watching the Sunday night show from Bangor to Bakersfield. So was a sanctuary full of folks at Journey Church back in Tifton, where Austin has been the worship pastor for the past two years.
“You do your best to prepare for that moment. But when that moment hits, you can’t quite compare how you’re going to feel,” he said. “There were a lot of nerves, a lot of prayers. I asked myself when would I ever have this chance again. I wanted to do my best.”
Austin drew enough support to advance to next week’s second round. “Rising Star” is filmed live and differs from other singing competitions in the way the contestants advance.
Although celebrities Paisley, Ludacris and Kesha can influence the voting with their comments, the viewers are considered the official judges and vote using mobile apps.
Austin has been on stage all his life, from the time he sang “Oh, The Blood of Jesus” at a recital when he was 2 years old. He performed in talent shows from age 5 through high school, winning all of them except one.
His father, Dwayne, lives in Perry. His mother, Kim, is a music teacher in Cordele and is the worship leader at Bethel Baptist Church in Sycamore. He has an older sister, Lauren, and a younger sister, Hannah.
Growing up with the last name French, he was accustomed to hearing all the wisecracks.
“French fry. French toast. Whatever they could put French in front of, they tried it,” he said, laughing.
Too bad he didn’t play the French horn.
Music was in his DNA. Singing and playing the guitar and piano were his lifeblood. He was a member of the chorus at Crisp County High School, where he graduated in 2012.
He had watched the competitive shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice” but had no real desire to follow that path.
“I always wanted to be the guy who got noticed singing in church or a gig where I was playing,” he said.
When Season 2 of NBC’s “The Voice” came along, he changed his tune.
He spent three months of his senior year working his way up the audition ladder. He made it to the final blind audition before he was cut. His performance never made it on the air.
Whatever disappointment he felt at the time, it soon evaporated like steam on the blacktop between Tifton and Chula after a summer thunderstorm.
“I was still pretty young ... 17 years old,” he said. “I figured the Lord was opening and closing doors for a reason.”
After he graduated from high school, he was hired at Journey, a nondenominational church that opened its doors in Tifton in 2010. His first Sunday there, he met a young lady named Joscelyn Marshall and his heart went pitter-patter.
He thought she was out of his league. He was wrong. She walked over and sat next to him. Soon, they started dating.
They are engaged to be married on Aug. 1 in Joscelyn’s hometown of LaGrange.
The show’s producers have agreed to fly him back to Georgia for the wedding if he is still in the competition.
Austin realizes now he might never have been “called” to Tifton and met Joscelyn had he made the field in “The Voice.” It has allowed him to grow and mature.
And his experience on “The Voice” turned out to be a means to an end. The “Rising Star” producer who contacted him on April Fool’s Day had been a producer on “The Voice” and remembered him.
Austin said he chose the official state song, “Georgia On My Mind,” for his debut because he always has been a huge fan of Albany native Ray Charles.
“Emotionally I could connect with it, but I also knew it would make my fellow Georgians proud and get behind me,” he said. “I love that song. I always have.”
(The video of his performance can be viewed at www.bit.ly/1moKYjV.
Austin doesn’t know how much longer his run will continue and if he will still be standing at the end of the 10 weeks. He just knows he is going to enjoy the ride.
“I believe in what I sing,” he said. “I don’t want to just tickle people’s ears but connect with their hearts.”
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org.