Makin’ Stuff Up: Sundance Head’s Precarious Climb

THE VOICE — “Live Semi Finals” Episode: 1117B — Pictured: (l-r) Blake Shelton, Sundance Head — (Photo by: Trae Patton/NBC)

Next to “Perseverance,” Funk and Wagnalls should put a picture of a Texas-born powerhouse named Jason “Sundance” Head. At 37, a herky-jerky, mad-mouse rollercoaster ride landed Season 11’s winner of The Voice smack dab in the spotlight. And, the Fates willing, that spotlight will continue to follow this extraordinarily talented fellow for a long time to come.   

Videos by American Songwriter

Without question, the son of ’60s-era blue-eyed soul shouter Roy Head (“Treat Her Right”) sings the lights out — which he’s been doing since his peacock-proud poppa invited the youngster on stage to duet at age 10. Although his pedigree and a leg up from the old man might have given Jason a “head” start, he couldn’t have had a clue how precarious the path ahead would be. That he stuck to his guns, regardless of the long odds, working doggedly to develop his natural assets and grabbing each and every chance to do his thing testifies to a heart rivaling the size of his home state.

You see, although Sundance has by now refined a unique and unmistakable stage presence, he’s about as far from a dreamboat rock-star as a feller can get. And Sundance makes no pretense of vanity. During one Voice episode, mentor Bette Midler queried if he ever performed without his instrument. “Nah,” the rotund singer replied with a wink, “When I take off my guitar, it makes me look fat.”

Sundance hasn’t always been so image conscious. As a contestant on the 2007 season of American Idol, the 27-year-old wailed Wilson Pickett’s “Mustang Sally” in J.C. Penney grunge (loose-fitting jeans and an un-tucked, over-sized dress shirt), looking more like a member of Smashmouth than the cowboy soul man he now portrays. Following one performance, the shallow, ever-caustic Simon Cowell criticized Sundance for “getting red in the face” and “singing through his nose.”

A hair’s breadth away from making the Idol Top 12, Sundance learned of his elimination, then was immediately sent to the show’s resident psychologist, who delivered even more devastating news: the beloved uncle who financed Sundance’s Idol quest had perished in a house fire. Paula Abdul recalls, “Just as I was talking about how great a singer Sundance was and how he should never have been voted off, he came into my dressing room to tell me about his relative. It’s devastating.” But the young man was no stranger to grief. He’d lost his hero/older brother to a car wreck — when Jason was just nine.

Soon, however, came encouraging news, a contract offer from Motown/Universal — a first for an Idol contestant who failed to crack the Top 10. Unfortunately, the label brass was unimpressed with the tracks Sundance cut with producer Joe Hardy and they dropped him without a single release. To support his growing family, a discouraged Sundance sought work in the oil fields. But the Muse kept calling. And, at 33, he decided to roll the dice, gambling on a full-time career as a music performer. Gigging and indie recording projects allowed Sundance to hone his hybrid style and ultimately claim the title: “The Founder of Country Soul.”

What makes The Voice unique in the talent-competition show realm is that the four coaches initially pick their teams based purely on the competitors’ vocal talents. Sundance’s soaring rendition of Otis Redding’s “I’ve Been Loving You Too Long” inspired simultaneous chair turns from coaching rivals Blake Shelton and Adam Levine. That Sundance joined Team Blake turned out to be a fortuitous decision. The genre-busting performer, who claims an eclectic array of influences, including Bono, James Brown, Robert Plant, and Sheryl Crow, kept the audience guessing with inventive, unexpected song choices, even daring to interpret hits by opposing coaches — Alicia Keys’ “No One” and Miley Cyrus’ “The Climb.”

In the face of strong competition from 17-year-old prodigy We´ McDonald and former child country star turned pop belter Billy Gilman, Sundance used his classic, elastic, Clyde-McPhatter-meets-Jackie-Wilson tenor to conquer copyright after copyright. But it was an inspired bit of coaching that put Sundance in the lead for good. Observing the divisiveness of 2016 America, Blake said, “I think people really want to hear a gospel song right now …  a really positive message of love and unity and faith.”

Sundance took Tom T. Hall’s traditional, church-y “Me And Jesus” off its knees and flipped it into a bluegrass stomp. Before the applause died down, his studio rendition had hit #1 on the iTunes chart. Tweeted his coach: “You think people have lost their faith? Wrong. Congrats @sundancehead. #1 song in the land.”

The term “artist” has become cheap currency in the music biz. True artistry depends upon an extraordinarily high level of self-awareness — of one’s most appealing qualities, what songs feature those qualities and resonate with a core fan base. Sundance Head’s final performance left no doubt that he deserves the artist mantle. “Darlin’ Don’t Go,” a simple, honest, and direct plea to his wife/manager to keep her faith in her man, provided the perfect climax to a lifelong, uphill climb of self-discovery, a gifted man’s quest to find his most authentic voice.

Ironically, a decade after being dropped, Sundance Head returns to the Universal fold. If the label gives him the creative freedom enjoyed by another talented renegade named Chris Stapleton, this country-soul juggernaut could become Music Row’s next superstar.    

Listen to John Dennis’ Hopeful New Track “Til The Morning”