Three McCreary Teenagers Find Their Voices through Vocal Performance
By Shane Gilreath
When talent and passions collide, it’s an inspiring spectacle. It’s also one that grows rarer by the day, as entertainment encompasses the world of reality and reality becomes entertainment. Despite its modern rarity, McCreary County has long been seen as a hub of gifted individuals, often untapped talents that remain incubated in the hills and hollows that surround this tiny oasis, but full of individuals with capabilities much bigger than their small southern town.
Many have shown the promise of talent over the years and spun it into successes. Among others, Stearns’ Zach Day made a splash on both NBC’s The Voice and ABC’s American Idol that landed him in Hollywood working with major players in the music industry, and Sarah Patrick landed a Nashville recording contract and continues to perform her country standards in shows across the region.
Following in those footsteps are three local high school students who have found an outlet with Veronica Hagan, a Somerset based vocal coach whose own passion seems to be showcasing the region’s talent and fostering it as her students grow in confidence and ability. The number of Hagan’s students with McCrearyCounty roots continues to grow, as McCreary Central students Jovannah Neal, Haley Duncan, and eventually Lucas Strunk all became standout vocal pupils, recently performing in a concert at One27 House of Prayer in Somerset, where a spiritual number, a Disney number, and a tune from the great white way were all in order. None disappointed, and neither did their particular outlooks on life.
For some, like Jovannah Neal, who hopes to pursue performing arts as a career and has performed with the Lake Cumberland Children’s Theater, entertaining has always been a part of her life. “Even at the age of 5, I was on a dance team and performing in plays,” she said. “It’s always been a part of me.” For Haley Duncan and Lucas Strunk, the inspiration had to come find them, even at tender ages. Each began chasing this passion by performing in choir with the school district and dreaming of matching their idols, note for note, on the radio, stage, and TV.
“I started choir in 5th grade and rapidly grew more accustomed to being on stage, as well as singing as a form of expression,“ said the precocious Lucas Strunk, who sang a particularly stirring rendition of the gospel classic, “It is Well With My Soul.” “I love being on stage and expressing myself through performance,” he continued.
Both Neal and Duncan agreed.
“I can show how I feel by singing,” Haley said, “and I can sing to relieve stress.” This was an important sentiment that even Hagan noted. Performing, she told The Voice, had been an outlet for many children who suffer hardships in school among their peers, including instances of bullying.
“Performing is oftentimes an outlet,” Neal concurred. “Sad? Happy? Mad? All these emotions can be used when performing. It gives you a space to be yourself and express your emotions. It can help you come out of your shell, as well,” she said, though she oozes with the confidence of a seasoned professional and brought the house to near tears with the Sarah McLachlan ballad, “When She Loved Me” from “Toy Story.”
To be so young, the assurance of all three was clear, each growing more and more confident, center stage, with each rousing performance, including Duncan’s performance of the haunting “Think of Me” from “The Phantom of the Opera,” which drew Broadway caliber praise from Hagan. Yet as each grow in their ability and subsequently toward adulthood, these vocal wunderkinds also know their art and its history, who and what inspire them, a breath of fresh air in modern changing-by-the-minute entertainment ventures.
Lucas, seemingly the oldest soul of the bunch, admires Dean Martin, and finds inspiration in Martin’s style and mannerisms, but, like Neal, calls the historic re-telling “Hamilton” a favorite stage show. The popular Broadway hit, which has broken records and taken many industry prizes, played heavily in their performance choices, with all three taking on favorites from the show, including one moment when the trio, each a veteran of Big South Scenic Railway’s “The Polar Express,” took to the stage to rap and sing their way through Hamilton’s “Satisfied.”
While Duncan prefers Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street” to “Hamilton” (which she called “expertly written”), she finds the most inspiration in Broadway legend, Idina Menzel, notably for her performance as Elphaba, who incarnates as the Wicked Witch in the Tony Award winning “Wicked.”
Performing, Duncan admits, has given her confidence. “I can sing out and be more creative,” she said, which she does capably while dreaming of donning Elphaba’s famous green face and performing in “Wicked” like her idol. “Sometimes, I just randomly find myself singing,” Duncan says.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself through performing. It has taught me ways to challenge myself and be another version of me,” Neal believes.
Encouragingly, each also believe their peers have been supportive of this path, but see ways that McCreary County can further foster the talent it holds within its geographic corners.
“My peers have been supportive and often encourage me to sing around them,” Lucas says, but also sees ways his hometown can grow its own. “McCreary County can more adequately support performance by allocating more funding to those artistic programs. This could transform McCreary County into a hub for artistry and self-expression,” he believes.
“There is a great deal of untapped talent here,” Neal says. “Our schools have really good choir, drama, and band programs, but I would like to see more opportunities for community theater.”
“(Performing) gives confidence, boosts creativity, and will help you make friends,” Duncan asserts. “If more people could perform or just show interest in the arts, I think that it could bring more light into the town.”
As Lucas took to the stage at One27 to perform Hamilton’s “History Has Its Eyes on You,” one couldn’t help but think, so does McCreary County, watching as each of these students chase passions through an art form that they hope inspires others to chase their own dreams; one that continues to mold them into young leaders. If, as they assert, performance provides confidence, then it is fair to say, too, that with it comes wisdom that also imparts its own gifts, well beyond the stage, just as I suspect Veronica Hagan intends for her students.
“I don’t think it’s necessarily about learning new things about myself,” said Jovannah Neal. “Just accepting what was already there. Self-reflecting has a lot to do with being a performer. I spent too much time comparing myself to others and wishing I was more like them,” she said. “It’s important to look inside yourself and see your unique parts.”
Photos by Shane Gilreath
Haley Duncan, Lucas Strunk, and Jovannah Neal perform “Satisfied” from the smash Broadway hit, “Hamilton,” on April 26, 2022 at One27 House of Prayer in Somerset. The McCreary County natives have been studying voice with Veronica Hagan, who has praised the talent of all three local students, seen here performing as the historic characters Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton, and Angelica Schuyler.