Belton city workers held a barbecue lunch the other day for one of their own, but as for what it was -- celebration? send-off? farewell? -- that's hard to say.
Tate Stevens, the honoree, has been a country singer nearly all his 37 years, but recently he encountered his big break, and it happened to look just like Britney Spears. The pop star is one of the judges on the TV singing competition "The X Factor," and Stevens was "discovered" last spring when the Fox show held tryouts in Kansas City.
Spears called the stocky guy in the white cowboy hat "a doll."
Episodes started airing last month, and so far the TV audience has seen thousands of hopefuls winnowed to mere dozens at the auditions and at the show's "boot camp" in Miami. Now, Stevens stands among just 24 contenders, divided among judges Spears, Simon Cowell, Demi Lovato and L.A. Reid, who have invited them into their homes for mentoring and such. (Probably not their real homes, though. Television reality, you know.)
On Thursday's show, Stevens sang "Back at One" -- a song made famous by R&B singer Brian McKnight -- and was praised by Reid and guest judge (ready for this?) Justin Bieber. "There's something about him that you want to root for," Scooter Braun, Bieber's manager, told Reid.
The Biebs equivocated, though, when asked if he'd write Stevens a $5 million check: "I'm not sure."
"X Factor's" top prize is a recording contract worth that amount.
But those scenes were taped some time back. Live shows, when viewers get to cast votes, begin Nov. 1, and rehearsals are thought to be under way now. In Hollywood.
Stevens isn't allowed to say if he made it. But word around Belton is that an "X Factor" crew will be filming there Monday. Live show watch parties are already planned.
Which brings us back to that lunch in the Belton street barn last week.
Was Tate Stevens headed out of town, maybe to a place that starts with an H? Had he survived the cuts to 16 live-show contestants, as all the signs suggest?
Had he quit his job as a Belton street worker, a guy who patches potholes and scrubs graffiti off stop signs and every winter drives a snowplow?
No, he said later, he hadn't given notice. And maybe the party wasn't officially a goodbye-and-good luck thing, but ...
"We didn't want to call it 'going away,'" says Randy Elkins, a fellow street department worker and a friend since childhood. "But it was a going-away lunch because we know without a doubt he's gonna make it one way or another. ...
"For us street crew guys it was a going away thing. We knew he was probably not coming back. We hope he's not coming back."
From Tater to Tate
Stevens is the latest in a series of reality TV stars from this area; the current "Survivor" features a guy from Shawnee. Stevens grew up in Belton -- moved there from Texas as a kid. But now he lives with his wife, Ashlie, and their son and daughter in a handsome, newish home in a newish subdivision in nearby Raymore. "Mizzou Fans Live Here," it says to the left of the front door, as you're greeted not only by the man himself but by two friendly shih tzus, Jake and Joe.
He'd much rather live out in the country, have some land, says Stevens, who, minus the cowboy hat or a ball cap, is revealed to have short brown hair. His wife is "so citified that this is as country as she wants to be," he adds.
His iPhone, on the dining room table in front of him, will chirp from time to time during the conversation. Before "X Factor," he was aware of Twitter but not a tweeter himself. Then the September night his Sprint Center audition aired, son Hayden (who just turned 16) informed him that he was a Top 5 trending topic on Twitter. With Hayden's help, Stevens now has his own Twitter account (@tatestevensctry).
His left upper arm sports a good-sized tattoo of a Celtic-looking cross with angel wings behind it. "Protect the Family," it declares, along with the names and birth dates of Hayden and daughter Rylie, 11. The tat symbolizes "faith and our trust in the man upstairs."
A much smaller "T.S." on his other arm is for Tate Stevens, of course, which turns out to be a stage name, although not one cooked up by TV producers. He adopted the name in the mid-1990s as a guy who wasn't even 20 yet. Trying to make a name for himself (ironically enough) and land a record deal in Nashville, he was told his given name didn't have the right ring to it. (He asked that we not disclose his last name.)
Record execs nixed "Tater," his longtime nickname, claiming it sounded like "the short, fat kid who lives down the street from everybody," Stevens says.
Ashlie, who met him in high school -- she was a junior, he was a senior -- calls him Tater to this day, as do friends. It comes from "Taterbug," a name the tyke picked up when it was discovered he was taking bites out of taters in his mom's potato bin.
So "Tater" became Tate, and his real first name, Steve, morphed into Stevens.
That's showbiz. "After the first 100 million albums, I don't care what they call me," Stevens says.
Learning to be Dad
The "X Factor" narrative on Stevens seems to go like this: Small-town guy pursues a career as a country singer but gives up his dream to settle down and raise a family. He ends up working on a street crew -- about as far away from Nashville as one can get.
Pretty much true, although Stevens never really stopped singing. Or yearning for the big time.
He grew up around music. Dad Steve had some success with a country band in the 1970s and early '80s in Texas, Stevens says, and sometimes little Tater would get up on stage and sing. "I just wanted to be like my dad, like most kids," he says.
His father played drums; Stevens was given a drum kit when he was 4. Later he got a bass guitar, but he realized he wasn't cut out to play bass. He taught himself to play acoustic guitar.
"I knew I wanted to be out front," he says. "I knew I wanted to sing."
He hit the road as lead singer for regional country act Dixie Cadillacs at the end of 1994, the year he graduated from Belton High School. They'd play 200-plus shows a year, Stevens says. He and Ashlie married in 1997, but he was never home for very long at a time. Meanwhile, the couple had their first child.
"My wife was basically a single mom with a kid," Stevens says.
So when their son was 3, he decided to come home. He was in his mid-20s and needed to take care of his family, get a "real job." He did construction work for a couple of years. What he didn't do, he says, was pick up a guitar.
(A college degree probably would have given him other options, but he didn't have that. His own kids, he says, will have no choice: "You go, you get your degree.")
It felt good to be home. It felt good learning how to be a dad.
But he still wanted to play music.
Around 2005, a couple of years after taking a job with the Belton water department -- he later transferred to the street department -- Stevens joined local band Outlaw Junkies as its lead singer.
In 2008, he quit the band to "set out on this whole Tate Stevens journey." He formed his own six-man Tate Stevens Band, which has toured all over the Midwest, not bad for guys who can do it only on weekends or vacations. And Stevens put out a record, self-made, "with some great songs on it," written by the likes of Keith Urban and Kristian Bush of Sugarland.
Stevens, too, is a songwriter, "a terrible one," he says. But then he allows as how he's written "some OK stuff." Just last week, he mentions, he penned three tunes with songwriter friends from Nashville.
His band is still in place, but he had to cancel several shows because "The X Factor" won't allow him to perform elsewhere.
Steve Koken, who plays piano in the Tate Stevens Band, says a lot of singers can sound good in a studio. But Stevens sounds good after pulling up to a county fair at 4 in the afternoon after a six-hour van ride. Even at a venue like that, with all the outdoor distractions and drums in his ears, Stevens is golden.
"Tater's never affected by that. He's just on pitch every time, all the time," Koken says.
His voice is easy to listen to, Koken says. Not raspy, but not velvet either.
"And last time he counted, he knew somewhere around 1,200 songs by heart," Koken says. "He's just kind of a machine that way."
But the best part about Tate Stevens, his piano player says, is "that we've driven 12-13-14 hours (to a gig) and he can make you laugh for 13 hours straight."
'Don't screw up'
After Stevens' Sprint Center audition was shown on TV, he became something of an overnight sensation. Certainly around Belton and Raymore.
Street crew workers found themselves in the spotlight as well. Elkins, Stevens' friend and colleague, says that at a QuikTrip the following morning, a lady asked them, "Where's Tate at?" That led to the guys writing "I'm Not Tate" on the backs of their neon-green work T-shirts.
They made one for him, too: "I Am Tate."
It's been pretty crazy, Elkins says. People drive up "when we're right in the street painting" to ask for Stevens' autograph or a picture.
If nothing else, the exposure has been great for Belton, Stevens says.
Friends note that he shows up for work every day. Except, of course, when he has to leave town for reasons he can't discuss.
"It's good work," he says. "At the end of the day, you can look back and know that you did something."
Then again, on Thursday's "X Factor," he said this: "If I make it through, there ain't no more asphalt work, there ain't no more concrete work for this old boy right here."
True, there's no concrete flowing on TV, but something else might be.
On a recent episode, during the "X Factor" boot camp, Stevens -- who's in the show's over-25 category and definitely one of the more senior contestants -- had to partner on a song with one of his rivals, a young guy named Willie Jones. Stevens apparently suggested the song ("Nobody Knows," which he remembered from the '90s).
Singing for the judges, Jones forgot some of the lyrics.
After the performance, L.A. Reid suggested that the older, more experienced Stevens had "hustled" the neophyte.
Lovato: "I think there's an agenda ..."
Reid: "Yeah, the agenda's to win!"
"It's reality TV," Stevens says matter-of-factly now. "They can make me look however they want me to look."
He is apparently "the devil in the white hat, as one person called me." But just the other day Jones called him and said he couldn't believe how the show portrayed Stevens. (Jones, who also advanced to the judges' homes, sang the song again this week, maybe just to show what he could do.)
For Stevens, a happier -- and more memorable -- moment was the enthusiastic response he got from the Sprint Center crowd and judges alike at his audition in June. His road there started in March when he, along with hundreds of other hopefuls, showed up at Kemper Arena.
Trying out for such a show hadn't been his idea. Ashlie and his kids cajoled him into it, and Ashlie, in fact, signed him up. What did he have to lose?
That Saturday at the Sprint Center, he was there by 8 a.m. and ended up going onstage sometime after 9 that night. What he mainly remembers about the day is feeling out of place, being the only guy in a cowboy hat. He sang second to last, which had to be by design.
He walked onstage with two thoughts crowding out all others: "Don't screw up" and "This could be it."
"I didn't want it to be hokey, being the only country guy," he says. But he heard one judge say "Yee-haw" and another say "Howdy."
He responded with "How are you?" instead of something like "Hey, y'all."
"What kind of music do you like to sing?" judge Lovato asked the guy in the cowboy hat and Western shirt. "Usually rap," he responded.
And when he was asked what he would do if he won the $5 million, he said he was going to throw a "big-ass party" and invite everyone. Other contestants had mentioned helping charities and such, but Stevens was just being honest.
After he sang, Spears said he was her favorite at that point.
Band manager and Britain "X Factor" judge Louis Walsh, subbing for a sick Simon Cowell, declared that Stevens possessed "an amazing, authentic, effortless country voice."
Furthermore, he said, "We've found ourselves a country star."
Stevens finds comments like that "completely validating, completely oh-my-gosh."
"We know how entertaining he is and how crowds respond to him," Ashlie says. "We knew in our hearts it was just a matter of time and getting in front of the right person.
"So far, we've been right."
These days Ashlie, who works in the IT field, can't take her husband to Walmart with her. Last week, with all the people wishing him luck and asking about the show, what should have been a 30-minute errand took two hours. But "it's really nice," she says.
If all goes as expected, "The X Factor's" current 24 contestants will be trimmed to 16 on next week's shows; each judge will keep four of six singers. Then, on the live shows, probably another cut to 12.
Maybe Stevens will win, maybe he won't. Last year, the show's first season in the U.S., no country singer made it to the Hollywood shows.
But it might not matter how far he gets. His name, his face, his voice are already out there. He's getting calls from record labels, producers, country artists -- well-known and well-connected people he can't mention by name.
"Where else can 20 million people see me sing at one time?" he says. "Nowhere."
A show like "X Factor" provides a really big stage, a big launching pad.
Whatever the result, "I think this will help with his music career," Ashlie says. "I want him to be able to do music full time and basically to work and do what he loves. I know he loves the guys he works with (on the street crew), but that's not what he was meant to do."
For him it's a "fall forward" approach, he says. He's moving forward, no matter what.
Everything that's happened is "freaking me out," he admits. But "it's awesome."
At that lunch at the street barn, the one that might or might not have been a going-away party, Elkins remembers something his buddy said.
"It's my time, I think," Stevens told him.
"It is your time," Elkins replied. "Without a doubt."
Watch-and-vote parties for Tate Stevens are planned for Wednesday and Thursday evenings starting Nov. 1 -- assuming, of course, that Stevens makes it to the Hollywood live shows on "The X Factor." The parties will be at Belton High School Freshman Center, 801 W. North Ave., Belton. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. Admission is free, but donations of kid-friendly, nonperishable food items are encouraged. "Team Tate" T-shirts and concessions will be available.
To reach Tim Engle, call 816-234-4779 or send email to email@example.com. Twitter: @tim_engle. ___
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