A young mother from Madison County who never ventured far from home is headed to the Big Apple for the first time in pursuit of a musical dream.
Jessica Hurt Weaver, 25, is one of three finalists competing for a professional recording session in Grammy-nominated country singer Martina McBride's Blackbird Studio in Nashville. The 2005 graduate of Madison County High School has to first go to New York in the near future, however, to sing her heart out on Katie, a talk show hosted by former longtime Today Show host and University of Virginia graduate Katie Couric.
Weaver's mother-in-law let her know about the singing contest on Katie last month and insisted that she enter so she did. But when Weaver, of Criglersville, got the call recently that she made the finals, she was speechless.
"It was overwhelming when they lay that on you. I didn't know what to say to them. It was scary. I've never really ventured too far out of my comfort zone, so this is huge," she said. "I've always worried that I don't have enough training, stage presence or experience to be doing something this big. It's taken me a long time to build up confidence to perform in front of people. I dreamed of it, but I hold back."
Weaver married her childhood sweetheart right out of high school, got her cosmetology license and then started a family. She has a 5-year-old son who just started kindergarten and a 7-year-old daughter. They think their mommy has a pretty voice, and singing is something Weaver has been doing since she was about their age.
"I would stand on top of a cedar chest in my parents' bedroom and sing Dolly Parton's "Silver and Gold" all the time," she said.
Her parents were her only audience growing up.
"I was so shy, terribly shy," Weaver said of not singing in school groups.
Her father though, a bluegrass singer and guitarist like her, pushed his daughter to perform in church or just about anywhere. Weaver, as a teenager, sang with his band, Hurt Hollow, and now sings with her own group, Shades of Blue.
When Weaver's dad, Bernie Randolph Hurt, died three yeas ago, she used music to ease the pain.
"To me, saying I love to sing is an understatement. It's a way to express myself, like when my dad passed away I was not emotional, I was very calm," Weaver said. "My outlet was singing. It's a way to lift up, to heal, to inspire, to get across what I can't get across in words."
For the Katie show singing contest, she had to submit a 500-word essay about why she deserves to win the recording contract and a video of her singing. Weaver selected "Jolene" by Dolly Parton, one of her dad's favorite singers. She used her cell phone to make the recording at her home in Madison, and it commanded attention.
Weaver supposes she's overcome her stage fright.
"For the most part, I guess, definitely nerves. Once you get past the first or second song, everything flows," she said. "You've got to get the reaction from the audience as well."
Weaver can't imagine what it will be like to perform in front of a live studio audience in Manhattan with the other two finalists.
"I try to take it one day at a time," she said, noting Martina McBride is one of her favorites. "She was somebody I definitely looked up to when I was younger. She's got such a good range, and I feel like she's taken a good path."
Weaver said she expects to perform on the talk show in New York sometime between now and October 6. The Katie show has not released when the episode will air or when the winner of the recording session will be announced so stay tuned. The prize is worth nearly $25,000 and will include travel and lodging expenses in Nashville in addition to the recording session with audio engineer John McBride, Martina as the producer and a live band.
Weaver's talent has also earned notice locally.
"What an honor to have an MCHS alumna receive national recognition," said Madison County School Superintendent Dr. Matthew Eberhardt. "We wish Jessica the best."