14-year-old with local support turns heads on ‘The Voice’

Fourteen-year-old Levi Watkins nailed “Hey, Soul Sister” during his first musical performance in front of an audience, which happened to be millions of in-person and television viewers and a panel of legendary judges on “The Voice.”

Less than one minute into the performance on Feb. 24, Levi’s innovative take on the song—including playing the mandolin, which he learned specifically for the audition—convinced country music star Blake Shelton to turn around, signaling his desire to coach Levi for the competition.

Shelton then ran onto the stage to celebrate and congratulate Levi while the other judges looked on in disbelief at his age.

“Somebody give me a microphone to drop; I need it badly,” Shelton said about how difficult it was for him to not react when he first saw Levi. “That was an incredible vocal. What a cool version of that song…I missed the second half. I was starting to black out a little bit because I was like, ‘Just stay calm, don’t react, don’t stand up.’ And when you guys didn’t turn around, it was the worst move of your entire Voice careers—all of you.”

The other judges Kelly Clarkson, Nick Jonas and John Legend, appeared to agree that they missed out.

“You have a really cool vibe,” Clarkson said.

Levi grew up in a musical family, learning to write songs, sing and play guitar, with some piano and drums.

About a year ago, Levi’s father Jim encouraged him to submit a video audition for the show.

“At first I was a little skeptical,” Levi said. “This could go nowhere—that’s probably where this is going to go.”

But Levi recorded a video from his church, The Church at Brook Hills, and several weeks later received an email invitation to an audition in Atlanta. From there it was on to Los Angeles for more interviews and more auditioning before learning he would participate in the blind auditions—so named because the judges listen with their back to the artist, only turning around when they decide they are willing to serve as a coach for the show.

“The day I went, all the interviews leading up to it, I was very nervous but really just ready because I had prepared for a really long time to get out there,” said Levi, a home-schooled high school freshman who lives in Vestavia Hills. “Going up on stage, I was so shaky and nervous and breathing hard. As I got into the audition and singing, I got more comfortable.

“When I saw him turn around, I was really relieved, honestly. I knew that if I didn’t get a turn, I wasn’t going forward.”

Levi will go forward with Shelton, who has coached the winner of The Voice six times. The coaches develop their teams of artist with advice and secrets of their success along with help from celebrity advisers. Levi will compete against the other contestants until a winner is determined by the coaches and viewer voting.

The show airs at 7 p.m. Mondays on NBC.

Levi said he is eager to hone his craft and improve his performance, and is thankful for the support of his friends and family, especially his father, mother Amy and three older brothers.

“I’m so glad to have this stage that God has given me and the gift he’s given me,” Levi said. “I’m fortunate to be able to share it with others.”