Any choice or decision that we make can prove to be life-changing. But imagine if one decision that would transform life as you knew it rested not in your own hands, but in the hands of 10 million other people.
Trent Harmon knows the enormity of that reality all too well. One minute he was waiting tables at his family’s restaurant in small-town Mississippi, and the next he was launched into instant stardom in April as the winner of American Idol’s 15th and final season.
With the title came an immediate whirlwind of activity from radio and television talk show appearances to interviews and promotions.
“Life has not changed a whole lot other than I’m just a lot busier than I was before. I’m still trying to do the same thing – I’m still trying to make singing my career. Just because I won a show doesn’t necessarily mean that I have a career of singing in the bag,” said the 25-year-old Amory native.
After his graduation from the University of Arkansas-Monticello in the fall of 2014, Harmon was spending most of his time back in Amory helping with his parents’ farm and working at their yard-to-table restaurant, the Longhorn Fish and Steakhouse, a favorite local dining spot since the Harmons opened it in 1995.
He had no plans to audition for any kind of singing competition again. He had tried his hand at both Idol and The Voice in previous years with not much success. In fact, he had already decided that he might just be done with singing all together before he learned that fate had other plans.
“Last summer, I decided on the spur of the moment to audition the same morning I returned from a mission trip to Belize,” Harmon said. “Oddly enough, I had just talked with the mission group the night before about what all of our future plans were, and I said, ‘Guys, I don’t think I’m going to sing anymore. I’ve been going real hard at it for a long time, and nothing’s really becoming of it. I think I’m going to quit doing music.’”
Later that night, three young Belizean boys came into the camp where the group was staying and begged Harmon to teach them how to play some music.
“None of them spoke a lot of English, but they wanted me to teach them a song on the guitar. I kind of took that as a sign that maybe God had other plans for me than to give up on music,” he said.
The next morning Harmon’s connecting flight landed in Little Rock, one of the five larger city audition stops for the Idol producers.
“I literally changed my clothes in the bathroom and went to the audition. It was just supposed to happen,” he said.
The world as he knew it would never be the same.
“I had someone tell me a scary statement the other day. They said your life that you used to have is over any way you look at it. You kind of have a second birthday — the day you won the show,” Harmon said. “At first, I thought that was fine; I wasn’t really doing anything anyway, but it’s nice to be able to go home when you want, and I don’t have that right now.”
Harmon has been living out of a suitcase for almost a year now with time spent recording in Nashville and Los Angeles, and when he starts to get overwhelmed, he makes it a priority to step back and take a deep breath.
“It’s easy to get exhausted. It really helps to have organized people around me. By nature I’m very routine-oriented. Usually by midnight or 1 a.m. I finally turn my phone off and go to bed. If you don’t go to bed and go to sleep, as I learned on the show, it doesn’t matter how well you can sing if you’re too tired to do the job,” he said.
At heart, Harmon still is — and hopes to always be — that small town Mississippi boy. He strives to stay humble and grounded, even though knowing he holds the American Idol title still feels extremely surreal to him.
“What I do throughout the day, if there’s a conversation I’m having, or a person I’m talking to, or an outfit they want me to wear, or a place everybody’s going to, I say “Would Trent a year ago do this? Say this, wear this, be seen with this person in public, or go to this place?’ If I wouldn’t do it a year ago, I’m not doing it now. It’s the little stuff that changes you,” he said.
It’s also the “little stuff” that Harmon misses most about Mississippi.
“I really enjoy going home, even though I haven’t been able to do it as much as I would like to. I like being able to see my friends when I want to, and, living in Amory, it’s not hard to get in touch and do things with your friends. But in Nashville, New York, L.A. — you can’t really do that,” he said. “Now that I’ve been on the road, I realize that’s something not to take for granted. I don’t get to just call somebody up and hang out with them right now. We have to have a conference call to make plans, and then follow up with an email to confirm. It’s not easy.”
Harmon said life is much different in Mississippi.
“In Amory, you can just text a couple of buddies and say, ‘Hey, my grandma is cooking tonight. Do y’all want to come over for dinner and then let’s go watch a movie or something?’ You just take for granted how easy-going it is. Living in a hotel, I don’t get to go eat at someone’s table every night. I go out to eat or have food delivered. It’s not the same. It’s the things you don’t think about until you don’t have it,” he said.
Harmon also misses having time to himself, but he also understands that the lack of personal space just comes with the territory.
“When most people go home for the day, they go home. They don’t have 20 to 30 people come over and want to borrow a cup of sugar. People aren’t wanting to borrow sugar from me, but they want this or they need that. That sometimes gets a little frustrating, but that’s part of it. Don’t expect to win a national singing competition and not have some of those things come with it,” he said.
But that’s when a support group comes in handy, and, fortunately for Harmon, he not only has the support of his family, but also a kindred Mississippi spirit who was beside him every step of the journey on Idol.
La’Porsha Renae, a McComb native, was a competitor on the show and finished strong as runner-up. The pair made history as the first two Mississippians to make it as far into the competition as they did.
“We were the only two who could honestly critique each other. Not that we didn’t take advice from the other contestants, but we could have conversations about certain things, jargons and viewpoints that none of the other contestants could have because we were from the same home state,” said Harmon.
The unlikely duo with different backgrounds but the same goal became close friends throughout the competition, fostering a relationship built on constructive criticism and encouragement.
“Just by default, we had each other’s back a lot because we knew that things like this don’t happen to people from Mississippi very often,” he said.
By making it to the final round of completion, Harmon and Renae were both awarded a 2016 Ford Fusion and a contract with a major record label. Standing on the stage on the final night, Harmon said that whatever happened, he knew they would remain friends long after the confetti had fallen.
“We just hugged. We both understood the importance of where we came from and how far we had come,” he said.
And today, despite their busy schedules, Harmon said they still find a way to stay in touch.
“We keep a group text going,” he said. “Several of us from the season are on it. We try to keep up with what’s going on with each other. And we laugh. It’s fun.”