December 11, 2013

‘Destined for something big’

Ron Wilbur is a contestant on NBC’s “The Sing-Off"

Rachel Brown

— Tunnel Hill resident Myra Baker said she knew her grandson, Ron Wilbur, a contestant on NBC’s “The Sing-Off,” was “destined for something big” from the time he was little.

When he was 3, he began singing at Hopewell Baptist Church on Airport Road in Dalton. He sang in the Martin Luther King Jr. Children’s Choir. He sang at his school. He sang at home. He sang even when he wasn’t supposed to.

“This is just one of his pastimes,” Baker explained. “He would get up in the morning singing, and sometimes even at the dinner table we had to say, ‘Ron, this is not a good time.’”

Wilbur, who was born in Dalton but now lives in the Atlanta area when he isn’t enrolled in classes at the University of Kentucky, was on the second of seven episodes of “The Sing-Off” Wednesday evening as one person in a 12-man performance group from the university called the acoUstiKats. “The Sing-Off” features 10 a capella groups in an elimination competition for the chance to win a recording contract and $100,000.

The show is pre-recorded, and contestants’ contracts prohibit them from discussing outcomes. Wilbur, who lived in Dalton until he was about 7 years old, was wrapping up his final semester as a music education and vocal performance major at UK on Wednesday as well as handling media calls.

As exuberant as he is about “The Sing-Off,” Wilbur said it took a while for him to realize his passion for music would evolve into more than just a hobby. He started out singing in church at Hopewell Baptist where his aunt, grandmother and mother all sang, he said. He was the scrawny little kid who wanted to belt it out alongside everyone else.

They let him.

Singing, Baker said, has been a family tradition for a long time dating back to the years when her parents were still alive, and the whole clan would sing together whenever they gathered. She said they did it again when Wilbur came home to visit her on Thanksgiving.

When Wilbur moved to the Atlanta area at about age 7, he became involved with a church there and continued singing, and he sang in school groups in elementary school. By middle school, he was beginning to make connections with his eventual high school music director and mentor, Stephanie Cash, a woman who would during his senior year ask him to join the award-winning girls’ chorus for a trip to Kentucky where he performed a guest solo.

As they visited the University of Kentucky campus, Wilbur performed without knowing it in front of his very impressed future professors. Even though he liked what he saw, Wilbur had never given serious thought to enrolling at UK. It was too far from home. He saw no reason to leave Georgia. Academic scholarships and music grants that gave the versatile baritone a full ride convinced him otherwise, and he began to more fully follow UK alum Cash’s advice and pursue music as a career. Sometimes he calls Cash his “life planner.”

In high school, when Cash first suggested he make a career out of music, he didn’t think it would happen.

“I was like, ‘No, I just do this for fun. I do this because I enjoy it,’” he said.

Studying music at UK offered more opportunities than he expected. One year at a Christmas concert, he heard the acoUstiKats — a 12- to 16-member subsection of the university’s men’s chorus. Immediately, he wanted to join. He auditioned, and was approved. New members rotate through the group yearly, and Wilbur said he is technically an alumni of the group now who was asked to come back and perform for “The Sing-Off.” He performed with the acoUstiKats as an official member for six semesters before student teaching and a busy schedule forced him to back off.

Wilbur said the group auditioned for “The Sing-Off” in Nashville, Tenn., in May. They were told they could perform just three songs and have 15 minutes with the casting crew. They ended up staying 45 minutes and singing six songs at the request of the panel, he said. Since then, Wilbur said, life has been “a whirlwind.”

In June, the group learned they were selected to be on the show. They jumped. They screamed. They yelled.

“I still feel the same way as when we found out,” he said Wednesday. “It’s been surreal. I feel like none of this has actually happened. It does not feel real at all.”

They spent about two months in late summer in Los Angeles filming — and having to keep everything secret. They weren’t allowed to officially release or talk about their future TV fame until NBC did so weeks later. They still can’t discuss everything, but Wilbur said one of his biggest takeaways from the show is the camaraderie among the competitors and their families.

“We’re friends. We love one another. I still talk to a lot of the group members,” he said. “We text and we tweet and we talk on the phone. We’re still a big family, so right now this is a big celebration for all of us.”

Wilbur is scheduled to graduate on Dec. 20. He plans a career in performance but is open to more than just a capella music. He said he enjoys jazz, R&B, opera and classical music among other styles.

“Pretty much anytime I have an opportunity to sing, I will probably take it because it means that much to sing,” he said.

Wilbur said he still comes back to Dalton often to visit his grandparents, including grandfather Henry Baker, as well as many other relatives.

“Dalton is still very much my hometown,” he said. “I am not removed from Whitfield County at all.”

He had high praise for his old preschool teacher, Charlie Tripp, who is now an administrator at Roan Elementary School.

“I love her to death,” he said. “She is one of my favorite people in the entire nation. It’s not often that you have teachers that you grow up with and that remain a part of your life. She was a teacher that I was like, ‘Please come to my birthday party.’”

Tripp said she went to Wilbur’s church at times to watch him perform, and they continued to stay in touch through the years.

Wilbur said the women in his family had a huge influence on his singing as they all sang in church and always around him. His mother, Michelle Williams, said her son being on “The Sing-Off” is “a little overwhelming,” in addition to being exciting.

“I’m a proud mom,” she said, recalling how Wilbur had a knack for carrying a tune almost from the time he could talk. “He was always singing. He was never quiet. He always had a song, he always had a tune. That’s just something he’s always done and he still does today.”

Myra Baker said she’s proud her grandson still gives God the praise for all his accomplishments, that he is good towards everyone he meets and respectful of his elders.  To encourage him, she often points him to Psalm 37:23, “The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord, and he delights in his way.”

“I don’t mean to boast or gloat or anything, but I did know that he was destined for greatness,” Baker said. “I just didn’t know to what degree. ... We don’t know what the Lord has in store for him, but whatever it is, we know that the Lord is going to continue to bless him, and that’s my prayer.”