"American Idol" contestant Ashley Tankard

American Idol   |  Airs Sunday nights at 8 p.m. on ABC

American Idol is no stranger to North Carolina talent.  

To date, the Tar Heel State remains home to the most winners of the popular reality television singing competition. And on February 19, American Idol premiered its 21st season, featuring two North Carolina natives who have shots at becoming top-10 finalists: Durham’s Ashley Tankard and Raeford’s Elijah McCormick.  

Tankard received her ticket to Hollywood during week two of American Idol auditions. Producers of the show were first impressed by her rendition, via Zoom, of Ed Sheeran’s “Hearts Don’t Break Around Here,” which she accompanied with her guitar. During her Vegas audition, where she sang in front of Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Lionel Richie, Tankard shared that she has tried out for American Idol a total of 15 times.

The now 22-year-old pushed through visible nervousness and sang Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First,” her unique, jazz-like vocals impressing the judges enough to offer her some grace. Perry allowed her to perform the song again and offered specific advice. Richie also empathized with her experience.  

“My first look on a stage was the curtains opened up and I walked off the stage because I was scared to death,” he told Tankard. “I know how debilitating that can be. This is something you can get over.”  

Tankard tells INDY Week that she has always struggled with shyness and performing for a public audience.  

“Throughout the entire process I was so calm, but the second I got tapped on the shoulder to go to the judges’ room, I almost had a heart attack,” Tankard says. “I didn’t know how I was gonna make it through the audition. I literally couldn’t breathe. I was singing and trying to breathe at the same time.” 

Tankard experienced a series of hardships growing up, she says, and music became a form of catharsis. At the age of 11, she taught herself to play guitar after watching her older sister play; she also plays piano. She cites former American Idol and fellow North Carolina native Fantasia Barrino as inspiration for joining the competition. 

To prepare for her next American Idol performance, Tankard plans to perform at a number of open mics in the Durham area, like the Hayti Kitchen & Cocktails open mic events, to build her confidence.  

“I knew that I would be capable of performing in front of people one day,” Tankard says. “But other people didn’t think so. They kept telling me I was too shy.”  

“I went in with the mindset of OK, these are just people,” says contestant Elijah McCormick when asked whether he was nervous prior to auditioning. Photo courtesy of ABC.

Elijah McCormick, a 21-year-old from the small town of Raeford—which has a population of less than 5,000 and sits about an hour and a half from Raleigh—wowed the judges with his soulful, confident rendition of “Bless the Broken Road” by Rascal Flatts. 

McCormick hit every note effortlessly, making his performance arguably one of the top performances of the night. Richie was immediately moved to tears and by the end of the performance, all three judges embraced McCormick in the middle of the performance floor.  

McCormick was raised in a musical family and started singing around the age of six in church. His father plays the drums and his mother was in a singing group with her sisters. And like Tankard, this isn’t McCormick’s first time auditioning for American Idol. 

Three years ago, McCormick’s mother signed him up for the show, but a serious car accident left him fighting for his life. He underwent 10 surgeries and spent a total of 79 days in the hospital.  

“I just feel like what I went through really wasn’t for me,” says McCormick. “It was for other people to be encouraged just by me being here.” 

During his audition, it was crystal clear that the judges fully agree. Richie nicknamed him “the golden child”—a name that, unbeknownst to the judges, McCormick says he was also called during his hospital stay. 

“God brought you back for a reason,” the Idol judges reminded McCormick more than once during the audition. 

“I went in with the mindset of OK, these are just people,” says McCormick when asked about whether he was nervous prior to auditioning. “We bleed the same blood. But as soon as I walked in and saw them, in person, it just all hit me and everything became a blur. I just had to take a deep breath to get myself in the right mindset and live in the moment.” 

Leading experts on near-death experiences often say that it changes people, including the way they approach life. And at the Idol audition, McCormick’s confidence, poise, professionalism, and groundedness could be keenly felt, even through a TV screen. 

McCormick says he is most inspired by John Legend, and it’s easy to hear a similarity to the R&B singer in the tone and cadence of his voice. Former Idol contestant Jennifer Hudson is also an inspiration.  

“She didn’t win the competition, but she’s winning at life,” he says of the singer, who is also now an actress and talk show host.  

Regardless of the outcome of the American Idol competition, McCormick hopes to be a representative of Raeford.  

“There’s a bunch of people trying to make it in my hometown and me being one of those people is crazy,” he says. “Currently I’m the one that everybody’s looking at. I’m doing it not only for myself but for Raeford and the surrounding counties.” 

North Carolina is beyond lucky to have two talented young stars who can saanng (not just sing—there’s a difference) and represent our great state.

Comment on this story at music@indyweek.com.

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