Thousands of Nebraska Wesleyan music alumni know what it’s like to stand on stage, swallow the butterflies, and perform. They’ve looked into the bright lights and felt the nerves. And they’ve grown under the criticism and tutelage of experts like Professors of Music Jean Henderson, William Wyman and Jeannette Young.
Richard Lawson’s (’15) Nebraska Wesleyan experience has been at once very similar and remarkably different. The sophomore from Aurora, Colo., took a deep breath and sang for Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson on Fox’s “American Idol”. The bright lights hid an audience of millions.
As a first year student in a cowboy hat, Lawson—or “Richie Law” as the judges called him—defeated the odds and did what only a select few have ever done before him: he excelled on “American Idol”.
Lawson didn’t know he wanted to be a singer until he was a high school sophomore. Up to that point, he’d imagined himself studying crocodiles as a herpetologist—not an easy line of work for a Colorado teen to get into. He said his decision to switch from crocodiles to country music “came down to what I was good at.” He said, “I was playing football at the time as well, and I had to choose between football and choir. It was obvious I wasn’t going to be a professional football player, so I focused on my singing.”
High school continued with chamber choir, jazz choir, youth chorus, All-State Jazz Choir, All-State Choir and a nationally recognized barbershop chorus called “The Sound of the Rockies”. His accomplishments caught the eyes of several college recruiters, including those at NWU and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. A renowned Music Department, small campus and significant talent scholarship attracted Lawson to Nebraska Wesleyan.
The opportunity to come to Nebraska Wesleyan and the opportunity to audition for “American Idol” were both things he didn’t want to pass up. “I decided this was a big shot. It was a giant opportunity,” Lawson said. “A door had been opened and there were 4,000 people behind me more than willing to walk through that door if I didn’t.”
Lawson had auditioned unsuccessfully for “American Idol” once before in 2009. What may have discouraged other artists only motivated Lawson to improve. He returned even more determined for the summer 2011 auditions at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, Colo.
He breezed past the first three rounds of auditions with little effort, earning himself a spot in the coveted fourth round. He would be one of just 120—120 out of 9,000 in Denver—who would stand in the well-known room with Tyler, Lopez and Jackson, with a camera crew recording his every move.
After a deep breath and a swallow of butterflies, Lawson had his golden ticket to Hollywood.
When all three judges told him yes, he felt as if a burden had been lifted. People had been telling him he was a good singer all his life, but the fact that he had been separated as “different,” the fact that the most famous singing judges in the world saw potential in him was finally enough for Lawson. “If I didn’t make it any farther, I knew that I had been established as a good singer. I didn’t have to prove anything to anyone.”
But Lawson wasn’t done. He advanced past the show’s Hollywood Week, where he performed solos, duets and a group number. The judges called him back to perform in Las Vegas, where he made the show’s Top 40 before being cut. He was one of 40—40 out of more than 100,000—to make it that far.
Being a part of “American Idol” wasn’t easy for Lawson. What
Tyler, Lopez and Jackson called Hollywood Week, Nebraska Wesleyan students called finals week. He had to take all of his finals early before flying to California. He also had to sacrifice his coveted spot on the University Choir, as he would have been unable to attend its end-of-the-year performances. He even had to take off his braces early.
The stress, lost sleep and stretched sanity were well worth it for Lawson. He fondly recalled singing “Country Girl Shake It for Me” by Luke Bryan and receiving a standing ovation from competitors and judges alike. “The feeling after that performance, the feeling that I’m not just safe but that I proved to everybody on television that I have what it takes, that I can do this, that’s when I knew I was in the right place.”
Lawson also feels like he’s in the right place within the Rogers Center for Fine Arts. He’s eager to keep singing and keep learning at NWU. The work of this budding country music star and committed college student is worthy of a standing ovation.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in the March 9 issue of The Reveille, Nebraska Wesleyan’s student newspaper.