By Scott Meeker
When Kenny Ray Horton showed up on the set to appear on an episode of the NBC singing competition “The Winner Is,” the wardrobe director had one piece of advice for him.
“‘Don’t ever show up here without the hat,’ he told me,” Horton said.
The cowboy hat is a natural fit for the Rocky Comfort native, whose episode of the series will air at 8 p.m. Thursday.
Horton, 42, began singing at a young age and began taking it seriously as something he wanted to make a career of by the time he was 12 years old.
“I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to be performing,” he said.
He was encouraged by his family and friend Bob Brumley, the son of Southern gospel songwriter Albert Brumley. After graduating from McDonald County High School in 1989, Horton attended Crowder College and then made his way to Nashville.
There, he joined songwriting circles and was eventually signed to a publishing company, where he wrote and recorded demo songs. One of the songs Horton co-wrote was “A Soldier’s King,” which was recorded by Kenny Rogers for his 1996 album, “The Gift.”
With the rise of digital music and file-sharing websites such as Napster, Horton said labels and publishing companies were in a rough patch.
“I saw a lot of my heroes starting to lose their (songwriting) deals, and I thought, ‘What is the new guy going to do? Where does this put me?’”
So at the age of 29, he decided to leave music behind and enlist in the Navy. But giving up his dream of performing didn’t stick. He said he saw an advertisement at the Naval Station Great Lakes seeking musicians. He showed up, played covers of “Jack & Diane” and “Amarillo by Morning.” And just like that, he was back on stage.
Today, Horton is the lead singer, rhythm guitarist and emcee for Country Current, a country/bluegrass ensemble that is part of the United States Navy Band.
“Basically, we are a presidential support unit,” Horton said of the Navy Band. “We’ve performed for the president and top brass, entertainment for their guests on the back lawn of the White House and at the Naval Observatory for the vice president, as well as at smaller functions where their global counterparts come in.
“We play the music of America to break the ice and loosen things up.”
Two years ago, Horton auditioned for “The Voice.” While producers were interested in casting him, the 10-week filming period couldn’t be reconciled with his performance duties in Country Current.
“The producers liked what they saw, but the problem was that it would have literally shut down the group for that period of time,” he said. “The unit would essentially not be working.”
The same producers of “The Voice” created “The Winner Is,” which was filmed over a week’s time.
“It caters to those people they liked but weren’t able to bring in due to the time frame,” he said.
A combination of a singing competition and game show, “The Winner Is” pits singers in head-to-head matches, all the while tempting them with cash prizes to leave the game as they work their way up to a showdown worth $1 million.
While Horton said he isn’t allowed to discuss the results of Thursday night’s episode, he has no complaints over how the competition works.
“They’re very fair about everything,” he said. “You hear speculation that these kinds of shows are rigged, but I can tell you that this show was fair and all the contestants agreed. It was all done live in the studio and you knew where you stood.”
Follow on Twitter
Kenny Ray Horton said people watching the show live can communicate with him live via Twitter when “The Winner Is” airs Thursday night using the hashtags #TheHat and #TheWinnerIs.