Regular NBC talent-show viewers might have recognized Nolan Neal when he auditioned for America’s Got Talent on Tuesday; in 2016, the now 39-year-old Nashville troubadour came to The Voice Season 10 with a heartbreaking and unforgettable backstory. Years ago, after being signed to Hollywood Records in 2000 and then Virgin Records in 2006, Nolan got into a heated phone conversation with his musician father, who told Nolan he’d never make it in the industry. Nolan’s dad then threatened to take his own life. Nolan hung up in a state of panic and anger and refused to answer when his dad tried to call him back, and the two never spoke again. Shockingly, Nolan found out the next day that his father had indeed died by suicide.
After his father’s death, the guilt-stricken singer-songwriter understandably started “downward-spiraling,” partying so hard that he damaged his singing voice and lost his deal with Virgin while in the middle of trying to record his album. Eventually he went to rehab and got sober for good 10 years ago, and after a brief stint fronting the hard rock band Hinder in 2014, Nolan decided to give The Voice a try. Though he didn’t turn any chairs on The Voice Season 10, when he returned in Season 11 a few months later, he was a four-chair success. He appeared to be on track to win the entire show, but despite his early frontrunner status, he got cut in one of the most shocking Knockouts in Voice history.
Nolan didn’t discuss his Voice past when he returned to television this week on AGT, but he was an open book when it came to discussing his father’s suicide and its aftermath. “My dad, he was a good guy, but he was just unwell,” he said. “When it happened, I really felt like I didn’t matter that much, like I wasn’t important enough for him to stick around. I blamed myself, for sure.”
Nolan also alluded to the fact that AGT was yet another rare opportunity — and maybe his last opportunity — in a life filled with tragedy and near-misses. “I really do believe in fate, and it means the world to me to have this chance,” he said. And while Nolan had never taken his chances on those other big TV talent shows, American Idol and The X Factor, he was well aware of judge Simon Cowell’s reputation, and this survivor was ready for a tough, honest critique now that Simon is AGT’s main panelist: “Simon, he knows talent, so if I am just a washed-up singer, I know he’ll tell me.”
Nolan needn’t have worried. After he poured his pain into a gritty original ballad — something he didn’t get the chance to perform on The Voice — called “Lost” (actually the first song he wrote after getting clean), he received a standing ovation from all four judges and the entire live audience, with Simon telling him, “You have an amazing voice. I don’t think you have to be a judge to judge this. I think it was quite clear to everyone sitting in the room today that we heard and saw something pretty spectacular.”
But it was new AGT judge Sofia Vergara — whose younger brother Julio became addicted to alcohol, cocaine and crack while still in his teens, and was later deported from the U.S. back to Colombia because of his many drug-related arrests — who was the most moved by Nolan’s passionate performance. Blinking back tears, she told him, “It was really touching for me to hear your song. I know very well the sickness of addiction. My family is completely full of this horrific sickness, and I totally understand. And to be here tonight and to hear that song, for me, it gives me a lot of hope.”
Four years ago, The Voice host Carson Daly told Nolan, “America loves a good comeback story.” Nolan’s comeback obviously didn’t happen then, but Simon told the singer this week, “Maybe now is your time.” However, it seems Nolan has already won, as evidenced by the reaction that “Lost” received on Tuesday. “I hope that it connects with you all,” he told the judges and audience. “That’ll be the real win for me.”
If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
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