And then there was one: Todd O’Neill.
After besting hundreds of other contestants in a four-month-long competition, Todd O’Neill was named the Nash Next 2016 Challenge champion last night (Oct. 25) at Nashville’s Mercy Lounge.
With judges Kix Brooks, Jay DeMarcus, Scott Borchetta and Danielle Bradbery on hand to crown the champion, the 10 Nash Next finalists were tasked with one final challenge: a live performance in front of the capacity crowd.
After the three-hour showcase that included 10 stellar performances—as well as a set from American Idol winner Trent Harmon—the judges deliberated backstage before making their announcement: Todd O’Neill was the victor. And to the victor go the spoils, which includes receiving national radio airplay on Cumulus Media radio stations, a recording contract with Big Machine Label Group and having an original song produced by Jay DeMarcus. As a surprise addition to the grand prize package, Country Inns & Suites presented Todd with a cash prize of $5,000.
“The competition was so stiff last night,” says Todd to Nash Country Daily during an early morning sit-down the day after the show. “I feel so blessed to have won—it really hasn’t set in yet. It was surreal to be sitting on the panel with Scott Borchetta last night, signing my record contract. After the show, I turned my phone back on and it was just fired up with messages and calls from friends and family congratulating me. Everything was [streamed] live last night, so they could see it all on the web and Twitter. When they announced my name, I almost hit the floor.”
Get to Know Todd O’Neill, Nash Next 2016 Challenge Champion
Hometown: Hammond, La.
NCD: How did you hear about the Nash Next 2016 Challenge?
Todd: It was a godsend. Within 24 hours of it being announced, three people had emailed me about the competition. One was a program director in Lafayette [Louisiana], one runs a venue where I play in New Orleans and one was an ex-girlfriend who is an attorney in Nashville. Within 24 hours they had all contacted me. I just felt like I had to do it because it was such an opportunity. After I won the regional in Lafayette, I still really didn’t think I had a chance, but then I got a call from a buddy of mine in Nashville and he had heard a snippet of my song on the radio and that I was one of the 10 finalists. Unbelievable.
Were you nervous yesterday during the finals?
I’m a pretty laid-back guy normally, but I was shaking in my boots yesterday. I don’t really get nervous—I used to be in an ’80s cover band and we dressed up, so I don’t get embarrassed or nervous—but yesterday was crazy. There was so much talent in the competition. Any of the other nine finalists could have won.
Are you ready for all the spoils that go along with winning this competition?
I’ve been working for something like this for 15 years. I dream big and I don’t want to sound greedy, but I want to keep going—tour the world, sell out arenas, make it happen. I know I’m a hard worker so winning this championship can be the start of all that. I’m so thankful to my band and everyone who’s supported me on this journey. I really am blessed and I’m ready to get to work.
How did you get started in music?
I grew up way out in the country in Louisiana, so we really didn’t have TV, but we had record players in every room in the house, so music was so influential to me. All genres. I have pictures of me playing by the fireplace as a kid using one of the fireplace tools as a guitar, but I really got started around 17 when I jumped in with bands and started to sing. And then I became a roadie to get to hang around more. From there, I started my own band called Big Cat Daddy.
At what age did you realize you wanted to make music your career?
At 17 when I started Big Cat Daddy, I knew I loved the stage and I always knew how much I loved music and singing, but it was probably at about age 20 when I knew I didn’t want to do anything else. I didn’t want a plan B. The stage was just home to me and I loved the people and making music.
Do you remember the first song you sang in front of a crowd?
“Here’s a Quarter (Call Someone Who Cares)” by Travis Tritt. Let me tell you, I love music, I love motorcycles, I love Travis Tritt. He was my favorite back in the day. He was a big influence of mine. After I sang that, it became an addiction to perform.
Who are some of your other musical influences?
I have so many. I guess if I have to narrow it down, I would say my older influences are Merle Haggard, George Jones and Otis Redding and the newer artists who have influenced me are Chris Stapelton and Marc Broussard.
How did you celebrate your big win last night?
We went out and had a celebratory drink at one of my favorite spots in Nashville, the DawgHouse Saloon. It’s so laid-back. But after I got back to Country Inns & Suites, I laid down for a minute, just to take it all in and reflect. And then we went back and watched the video of the performances last night. When they announced my name as the winner, I almost hit the floor, again.