March 12, 2012.
Nick Stuard was in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., to showcase his 16-year-old voice in a North American Country Music Associations, International (NACMAI) event.
He had worked years for this. Music had been his passion from the age of 5 when he’d sing at Whitfield Baptist Church for people who bribed him with a little cash into a performance in exchange for putting up with embarrassing attention from all the adults who would “ooh” and “aah” over the cute little boy with the amazing voice.
Then he began to enter local contests — first a Valley Point Middle School talent show, then Showcase of the Stars, the popular annual fundraiser for the Whitfield Education Foundation. After that, it was talent shows at Lake Winnepesaukah, contests at Six Flags and a failed attempt last summer at getting on “American Idol.”
At age 15, faced with the vocal changes of puberty, Nick was taken to a professional. Vocal coach Philip Hare began working with him on how to use his voice, how to expand it, how to be a performer.
They’d all looked forward to hearing Nick perform at NACMAI. Mom Tonya and sister Ashley were always on the front row any time he performed.
Only this time, it was different.
Three hours before he was set to perform, Nick’s promoter, Alisa Asbury, updated him on a change of plans. His mom wasn’t feeling well, he recalled her saying, and she needs to get out of here — you’ll go ahead and perform.
Confused, Nick prepared himself. On the stage, he cranked out Billy Currington’s “Let Me Down Easy,” Craig Campbell’s “Fish,” Eric Church’s “Country Music Jesus” and Craig Morgan’s “What I Love About Sundays.” He doesn’t have a single favorite song, but these numbers he enjoyed enough to select himself.
Ashley, who dubs herself his biggest fan, sat where he could see her, cheering him on. He thought she looked like she was trying to hide her face.
“I just went up there and performed the best I could,” he recalled.
As soon as he got off stage, Asbury took him into a back room and broke the news. His father, James “Jim” Stuard, 55, had been killed in a wreck near their home off the South Dalton Bypass. Tonya would later take up a crusade to get a traffic light at the bypass and Piney Ridge Road where he was killed — a crusade that’s ongoing — but for now, all the family needed was to get back home.
Ashley, 19 and a nursing student at Dalton State College, is the one her mother describes as a “rock” for her ability to keep a clear head through difficulty. She drove the family home on the condition they not talk on the phone to anyone while she was behind the wheel. It would upset her too much, she said.
Ashley was also the one who had helped them coordinate Nick’s performance that day so he wouldn’t go home empty-handed.
“There was nothing we could do at home, and Nicholas had worked so hard for that,” she said. “We had to let him do his best, and it paid off in the end. That’s the best I ever saw him sing in his life. That was the best he ever sang in his entire life.”
The judges were impressed, too. In the new country division for 13- to 16-year-olds, Nick won male vocalist and entertainer of the year.
Nick has achieved success in areas outside of singing, too. He’s teaching himself to play guitar and is an honors student at Southeast Whitfield High School. He’s on the school’s basketball team, and he also sings the national anthem at games. Football is in his athletic repertoire, too.
More recently, he performed at the National Day of Prayer at the Whitfield County Courthouse, at the Hard Rock Cafe in Nashville, Tenn., and at the Hard Rock Cafe in Memphis. A member of the Georgia Country Gospel Music Association, he’s also affiliated with Sweet Southern Entertainment, a publicity organization that books him at various venues and competitions, mostly during the summer months.
Now, he’s adding “songwriter” to his list of accomplishments.
“With the tragedy of losing his father, it has sort of kind of forced him into becoming a songwriter, and he has got a powerful song that he and I co-wrote together,” Hare said. “It’s a great song and it shows his personality and it also shows his dad’s personality.”
Tonya said Nick recently debuted the tribute locally on a Sunday, and he performed it again at the Hard Rock Cafe in Nashville.
“At the end of his set, the promoter asked if he was going to sing ‘His Dad’s’ song,” Tonya said. “Nick said, ‘I wasn’t planning on it. Do you want me to?’ Of course she did, and he sang it and everyone cried. It is so beautiful.”
Nick said he wrote the song about a month after the wreck and is working to have it recorded.
“I’ve been trying to write my own songs, but it never really worked out, and I thought about it and just sort of felt it, and it sounded good, I thought, so I took it to Philip and he helped me finish it,” Nick said. “It just sort of goes like how I took him for granted while I was here, but I loved him so much and now he knows that, and I know that now he’s in heaven and I can’t wait to go back and see him some day, and that I know he’s with God now, and they’re both waiting on me up there with open arms. It just has a really good vibe to it.”
Even without musical accompaniment, it’s the sort of song that can get stuck in your head, and Nick sings it with the emotional honesty of someone who understands its impact.
“And I can’t wait much longer/ to go and see my father. I need to feel his sweet embrace. I know he’s up in heaven/ with his Harley riding’ ‘cause he had found all of God’s grace/ Amazing grace ...”
Influential artist: Justin Moore
Genres: Country, gospel
Goals: College, music career
Recent awards: North American Country Music Associations, International male vocalist of the year, entertainer of the year for 13- to 16-year-olds
Online: www.youtube.com/user/StuardMusic, www.reverbnation.com/nickstuard, www.facebook.com/NickStuardMusic