Chris Kroeze’s six-month journey on NBC’s “The Voice” finally came to an end with a runner-up finish last week, but it’s an experience the Barron native will never forget.
Kroeze’s remarkable run from local bar and wedding entertainer to national celebrity captivated thousands of residents in northwestern Wisconsin and millions of viewers across the country.
It was quite a ride for Kroeze as well — one he realizes likely will change his career path forever.
“It was an amazing experience,” the 27-year-old said in an interview Friday with the Leader-Telegram. “It honestly hasn’t quite set in yet.”
Still, Kroeze readily acknowledged that, after being in Los Angeles for the 47 days leading up to the finale and for two months earlier in the year, he was glad to finally arrive back home in Barron at about midnight Wednesday.
The life-changing adventure began in April when Kroeze got a call from a producer for “The Voice” asking him to go to Los Angeles for the show’s blind auditions. To this day, Kroeze doesn’t know how they got his name.
Initially hesitant about being away from his family so long, he decided to give it a go despite having no idea how he would do when he first performed for superstar coaches Blake Shelton, Jennifer Hudson, Adam Levine and Kelly Clarkson.
“It’s so hard to tell. There’s so much talent out there,” Kroeze said. “I was just taking it step by step and kept surviving each round somehow.”
Talent displayed early
Kroeze’s success was no surprise to his grandfather Dan Pond of Barron, who has been predicting big things for his musical grandson since he made a stunning public performance debut playing guitar at an elementary school talent show in Barron. As Pond recalls it, Kroeze was 8 or 9 when he strummed three simple songs along the lines of “Mary had a Little Lamb” and “Jesus Loves Me,” prompting polite applause from the audience.
“When people were done clapping, he let loose with AC/DC, and everybody went wild,” said a chuckling Pond, who joined about 30 family members in the California studio for last week’s finals.
Kroeze’s love of guitar was evident throughout his childhood, as his parents frequently had to take away his guitar when he continued playing long after bedtime, and Pond even remembers seeing Kroeze playing air guitar when he was on the bench during his youth team’s basketball games. When Kroeze would join his grandpa, a truck driver, on trips to the West Coast, the guitar was his constant companion, and the boy often could be seen playing for people in the lounge at a business where Pond was picking up a load.
To this day, Pond said Kroeze, who got his first guitar at age 6, is “just amazing on the guitar,” an assertion backed up by coaches on “The Voice.”
It wasn’t until eighth grade that Kroeze sang onstage for the first time, at the Barron Area Community Center. The performance came as a surprise even to his mother, who expected him just to play guitar, Pond said.
Kroeze announced last week he will return to the same venue Feb. 22 for his first public performance after his rise to fame on “The Voice.” Tickets went on sale Saturday at chriskroezemusic.com.
“It’s the first stage I ever performed on, so I figured what better stage for my first public concert after the show,” Kroese said. “It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”
The concert will kick off a period in which Kroeze hopes to focus on his music, both by doing more studio recording and live performances. He has several new songs ready to release soon, and he is thrilled to be booked to perform July 19 at Country Jam USA near Eau Claire.
Kroeze’s experience on “The Voice” began with a rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Pride and Joy” at the blind auditions. It was a song choice that showcased the raspy, bluesy voice and Southern rock-inspired style he became known for. He went on to perform a number of country and rock songs that he has delighted west-central Wisconsin audiences with for years.
Highlights of his final week on the show included jamming with the Doobie Brothers and playing a duet with Shelton, his coach.
“He’s such a huge star,” Kroeze said of Shelton. “But when you’re practicing, it’s just two musicians in a room working on music. He’s super down to earth. ... It’s not an act at all. That’s literally who he is.”
Kroeze and Shelton displayed a visible bond as the show progressed, with Kroeze joking that he had never been kissed so much by another man, and Shelton razzing Kroeze for his low-key demeanor even during moments of excitement.
Kroeze said he never felt particularly nervous performing on such a big stage, even as the stakes grew ever higher as he advanced.
“At a certain point, there really is not a bad outcome,” he said, referring to the exposure, instruction and experience he gained along the way.
Perhaps that explains why Kroeze expressed “no disappointment whatsoever” at coming so close but not winning the 15th season of “The Voice.”
“To make the top two was just crazy,” he said, adding that he had no regrets about any of his performances on the show.
Though some marathon days between shows involved 16 to 18 hours of practicing and recording, Kroeze called the whole experience a “ton of fun” and said he especially appreciates the lessons he learned about the importance of interacting with the crowd and being a full-blown entertainer and not just making music.
“I enjoyed the process, and I’m grateful for all of it, but to be honest, I was ready to be done,” Kroeze said. “I was ready to come home.”
Despite his newfound fame, it seems one can take the musician out of Barron but not the Barron out of the musician. Kroeze is still the same humble, down-to-earth guy that so many people admire in his hometown, Pond said.
That feeling was only multiplied Nov. 19 when Kroeze redirected the spotlight to Barron by dedicating his performance of the Beatles’ “Let it Be” to the town and adorning his guitar with a green ribbon in honor of missing 13-year-old Jayme Closs. Anyone who saw that show got a glimpse of Jayme’s photo and heard the story of how she went missing on Oct. 15 — the same night her parents, Denise and James Closs, were shot to death in their home about two miles outside Barron.
Kroeze, who also performed for Barron students this fall to help them get their minds off the tragedy, said he approached producers of “The Voice” about bringing up Jayme’s story, and they were all for it.
“I was on a big stage and wanted to get her name out there on a big platform,” Kroeze said. “It was just the right thing to do.”
Asked if his TV experience has him ready to move to Los Angeles, Kroeze laughed and said, “There’s not enough money in the world.”
He stressed that his ties to Barron run deep, even if he plans to record more music in Nashville and hit the road for as many shows as possible.
“Barron is where I grew up,” Kroeze said. “All of my friends and family are here, and I have no intention of leaving.”