BARRON — Even as his star continues to rise following his runner-up finish on “The Voice” last month, singer/songwriter Chris Kroeze says his feet will remain firmly planted in his hometown of Barron.
“I don’t want to live anywhere else,” Kroeze, 27, told The Country Today in an interview at the Rolling Oaks Restaurant and Lounge on Barron’s west side. “This is where I want to be.”
Kroeze said he owes a debt of gratitude to his farming community, and small towns throughout Wisconsin and elsewhere, for their votes each week that helped propel him to the final four on “The Voice,” a vocal competition on NBC.
“The rural vote was huge,” he said, but “it goes both ways. It’s cool for the town and the community I grew up in to have someone on TV representing that, and for me, it was really cool.
“If you live in New York City and make it onto a team on ‘The Voice,’ it’s not a big deal. Around here, it gets around a lot quicker; people support each other a lot more.”
“The Voice” features five stages of competition, starting with the blind auditions and ending with live performances. Country music star Blake Shelton picked Kroeze in the blind auctions for Team Blake and mentored him throughout the competition.
“I got to know him and Kelly (Clarkson) well,” Kroeze said. “Both are very down-to-earth.”
Kroeze, who’s set to release an album in February, said Shelton, a “like-minded” country boy from a small town in Oklahoma, is “exactly what you see on TV,” and they keep in touch. Kroeze said he’ll also stay connected to other musicians he met on the show.
“The whole thing was super awesome,” he said. “It’s something I’ll always remember positively. It was a ton of fun. I’m glad It’s over, though.”
While Kroeze plans to continue living in Barron with his wife, Mara, and their two young children, he knows full well that his life will probably never be the same. Even running errands in his hometown is different.
“A lot of people come up and take pictures and say hi,” he said. “It’s all good, though.”
He said he’s still trying to navigate his newfound fame. Last week, he performed the National Anthem at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison one day, visited Kwik Trip headquarters the next and recorded lines for about 30 radio shows, among other tasks.
Ditching the city life
Raised about five miles west of Barron, Kroeze said his dad gave him his first guitar when he was 6. He started singing at about 13 years old. His dad drove truck for Indianhead Holsteins, owned by the Bob and Karyn Schauf family, and that’s how Kroeze got to know their sons, fellow musicians.
After high school, he started playing in local bars and continued with that through his college years in Minneapolis, where he studied audio production and engineering.
“I made enough money to pay my rent,” he said. “It kind of became something I could live off.”
Kroeze said he’s been a full-time musician since he was 20. He and his friend and manager, Zach Schauf of Indianhead Renewable Forest Products, have made numerous trips to the Middle East to perform for military troops. Kroeze hopes to take more of those gigs when he gets the chance.
Going on the road has meant a lot of time away from home, and launching a music career often is either “feast or famine” financially, he said.
Living for three years in Minneapolis revealed to him that city life wasn’t for him, and he returned to Barron. He got another taste of it during his participation in “The Voice,” as he lived in a hotel in Burbank, Calif., for about five months.
While Kroeze was happy to move on in the competition each week, it meant spending another week in Los Angeles for publicity events, rehearsals and wardrobe fittings. His family visited a couple of times.
By the end, he said, “I was ready to come home.”
Kroeze said he was invited to audition for “The Voice” after someone with the show saw a video of him. He was one of about 40,000 people who auditioned for this season and spent a month in L.A. preparing for the blind auditions. The competition is narrowed down to 48 singers chosen for the four teams.
“To end up in the top two spots was crazy,” he said. “The whole time you’re out there, you don’t know if you’re going to make the show, make a team.”
Kroeze said he was pleased that he could use his platform on “The Voice” to bring nationwide attention to the search for Jayme Closs, a 13-year-old Barron girl who disappeared last October.
“It’s something I could do,” he said. “It was just the right thing to do.”
Tuning in to watch Kroeze also provided a welcome diversion for the hurting Barron community. Almost three months after Jayme’s disappearance and the murder of her parents, the teen was found alive late last week near Gordon.
Kroeze said he hopes his appearance on “The Voice” will inspire other musicians from small towns in Wisconsin and other states to take a chance and pursue their dreams.
“It was definitely a crazy ride,” he said.
He plans to continue performing for small-town audiences, starting with several performances in late February in Barron. In early March, he’ll perform in Whitehall, with proceeds benefiting the Whitehall FFA Chapter.
Kroeze said he’s taking it one day at a time, and while he knows he may have to travel more as his music career takes off, he’s adamant about keeping his home base in Barron — and doing a little fishing as time allows.
“I’m not going anywhere,” he said. “There’s no reason I can’t drive to Minneapolis and fly where I want to go.”