Arkansas’s Idol

By Levi Gilbert

The April 2009 issue completed 501 LIFE’s first year of publication and it was also the first time Kris Allen’s name appeared in 501 LIFE, but it was far from the last time. 

My journey with 501 LIFE started a few months after the magazine launched its first issue in May 2008. While I was mostly focused on sports at the start, one of my early contributions was getting coverage on the Kris Allen American Idol story before it really exploded. 

In 2008, my wife, Brittany, and I were still newlyweds and had gotten plugged into New Life Church in Conway. Brittany and Kris were both on the worship team, so we had common connections. 

One night in late 2008, we were eating dinner in Conway with another New Life couple, Abe and Sierra Smith, and in walks Kris with a few other people. One of them came over to our table to talk to Abe. He pointed over to Kris and said, “You see that guy over there. He’s going to Hollywood Week.” 

Soon after, I pitched running a story on Kris for the April 2009 issue, which was themed on faith. While there would be many more features in the months to come, the first feature on Kris focused on the first aspect of him that I had first known – Kris the worship leader. I had never met him before Idol, but I knew about Kris the worship leader through my wife.

“My earliest memories of Kris were from Chi Alpha at UCA in 2006 and 2007, and a little later at New Life Church,” Brittany said. “The first thing that stood out was his talent. Often the best moments were with just him and his guitar. 

“He would arrange songs I had known my whole life in ways I’d never heard, and then he would sing them with his whole heart in the most genuine way. He also had a posture that lingered in moments that others may have rushed through. I loved being in those moments where you could tell he had taken a lot of care in the way he paired songs and then sat in a moment for reflection.”

By the time the article ran in March 2009, Allen had made his way through Hollywood Week and survived the Top 36 semifinals to become a Top 13 finalist.

“I wasn’t surprised that he made it, but I wasn’t sure how it was going to go,” Brittany said. “I was a little protective even though I didn’t know him personally. I wanted to keep him for our community and our church. I expected him to bring his brilliance and his simple style, but I wasn’t sure how much of a say he would have in his performances or how produced it would be by American Idol. I was sure hoping the world would get to see what I had seen so far.”

I have the great privilege of doing play-by-play of Conway High sports broadcasts for Conway Corp. Now, this seems like a totally unrelated tangent, but I promise you, it’s not. It is connected, strangely, to Kris Allen. 

I had someone recently ask me how I got connected to Jeff Matthews, which is ultimately how I have the Conway Corp play-by-play role now, and my answer was simple—I met Jeff through Kris Allen. Or, the Kris Allen watch parties, to be precise. After Kris became a Top 13 finalist, the watch parties really blew up, and that’s where the Jeff connection comes in. 

The Conway community began to coalesce behind Kris, and a real organized local effort began to form in the Kris Allen Kick Awesome Task Force and planned watch parties were one of the concrete efforts that were birthed. The watch parties needed emcees, and who better to do that than local radio hosts that were helping lead the charge in awareness for Kris on their shows. Jeff Matthews, who at the time was a co-host of The Morning Rush with Jeff & Lisa on B98.5, was one of the official emcees. 

“We would get calls at the start of each season of a reality show with listeners telling us that so and so from such and such was going to be on a particular show,” said Matthews, who now serves as Manager of Video Production & Local Programming at Conway Corp. “It usually never amounted to anything. Obviously, with Kris and American Idol, it did. At the watch parties, people would show up and kept showing up. It was absolutely an honor to play a part in those events. It was communal. That’s really what it was like. It was like the home team was playing for a state championship. Except this was an individual, who lived in downtown Conway on an international stage, and he was making us more and more proud each week. I was able to see that on those faces that attended the watch parties each week and it was a real thrill.”

Week after week, the Conway community gathered to support and vote for Kris. 

“The ‘Kris Allen Kick Awesome Task Force’ seemed to grow overnight, from a small handful who met at the 501 LIFE office to a large group of volunteers who represented different segments of the community,” said Sonja Keith, one of the founding owners of 501 LIFE who was pivotal in the organizational effort. “We were eager to give of our time and resources to achieve a common goal—help a talented young musician from Arkansas pursue his dream. The group’s enthusiasm spread, and fans showed their support in various ways, from buying Kris Allen T-shirts to attending public watch parties, which attracted a couple thousand attendees of all ages. It was incredible!”

“It was at level 10 out of 10 every single week,” Brittany said. “Because you felt like you had to be all the way in order to help him get there—like it depended on us. It was neat watching everyone come together. Everyone really wanted to support him and help him win. It was bananas, in a way. It’s obvious we didn’t have kids then because there’s no way we would’ve had the energy that those watch parties required.

“Of course, every single week watching Kris create magic on stage was so cool. I remember the feeling after each amazing performance. What he did with those songs, I don’t really think another contestant had ever done that before. Some of his arrangements are now my new favorite versions of those songs. He raised the bar.”

When Kris earned his way into the Top 3 and came back to Central Arkansas for Homecoming Week, the whole world got a glimpse into how much Arkansas loved and supported him. Over the years since his Idol win, Kris has found ways to give love back.

“I was lucky enough to emcee the Alchemy Songwriting Competition for Blackbird Academy of the Arts in Conway on a few occasions that Kris was instrumental in,” Matthews said. “It helped me see how much Kris understood the importance of using his influence for good—even after the world had moved on from 2009—he was able to still remember the people and places that were influential to him. What I love about Kris is that from my perspective, what you see is what you get. He’s genuine, and I think that shows.”

Kris, the 501 has your back. Then and always. 

Levi GIlbert
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