By Loretta Gillespie
The Cullman Times
In 2000, an 11-year-old boy walked confidently out to the middle of an SEC college gym floor, all alone. He brought a microphone up to his mouth and out came a voice that would one day be heard all across America, if not the whole world. That voice, the one that belted out the National Anthem on the court of Vanderbilt University at a Vandy basketball game, is now one of the final 13 contestants vying for the 2014 American Idol title.
His name is Ben Briley, and his story is one that will inspire people of all ages, from all walks of life. He is the real deal, a genuine Southern boy who worked on his grandfather’s farm, hauling hay, working cattle, stripping tobacco and following his grandaddy’s every footstep.
Ben’s grandfather, the late Elder Wesley Briley, was a well-known country preacher. He played a huge part in Ben’s formative years. So much so, in fact, that Ben wore one of his grandfather’s favorite suit vests on stage during an American Idol segment. Some fashion critics mentioned Ben’s apparel in less than complimentary terms. That mattered little to Ben, who wears the vest close to his heart as a way of bringing his grandfather out on that stage with him. His Tennessee caps are also a reminder of home, family and friends, and the community where he grew up.
That community is now pulling out all the stops for one of their own.
“From the elementary schools to the folks in assisted living,” said Ben’s mom, Tribby Briley. To say that they are of proud of Ben is the understatement of all time. “Our town is exploding over this,” she added, “Everyone likes to see a good guy do well.”
According to Tribby, Ben started singing publicly at the age of three. “His Aunt Reatha (Tribby’s sister) found a soundtrack for him of an Amy Grant song that means a lot to our family to this day,” she said. “It’s called ‘Heirloom’, and it’s also the song that Ben and I danced to at his wedding.”
Looking back over the years of Ben’s life, his mother isn’t one bit surprised that he is attracting national attention. Singing, playing guitar and writing songs have been encoded into Meggie and Ben’s DNA. They both have amazing voices and it won’t come as a surprise to any of their dozens of cousins, former classmates, Sunday School teachers and anyone else who has watched as the Briley kids grew into adulthood, if they someday sing together professionally.
In his senior year of high school, Ben was voted, “Student on the Road to Success.” It looks like his peers were right on target. Meggie’s focus has always been to be a caregiver. She is now preparing for nursing school, and works in the critical care unit of Sumner Regional Medical Center and is a full-time student at Volunteer State Community College.
Ben’s great-grandmother, Kitty Cora Cline, was the first woman performer to solo on the stage of the Grand Ole Opry. She was a regular of the Opry from 1928 to 1934. Cline played the hammered dulcimer, paving the way for other talented women who would later grace the stage at the old Ryman Theatre.
Kitty’s daughter (Ben’s grandmother) Gladys Cline Graves, was a poet and a songwriter. She was also the mother of 11 children. “She didn’t pursue a career because she was so busy raising her family,” said Tribby. “But she did find the time to write some beautiful poems and songs.”
The tradition continued with Tribby, who played guitar and sang on the popular Nashville Ralph Emery Morning TV Show from 1975 until 1985. Ben has referred to his mother on the stage of American Idol as the Taylor Swift of the ’70s. Tribby was elated and honored when she heard him make the comparison on national television.
Ben also has a Cullman tie. He and Dot Gudger are second cousins on his mother’s side. Ben and Meggie refer to her as Aunt Dot, and think she’s wonderful. Dot has always been proud of Ben’s accomplishments. She was proud when he won numerous talent contests in middle school, she was proud when he sang the National Anthem for the Nashville Sounds, Vanderbilt and Western Kentucky University, and she was proud of him when he was elected student body president of his 400-member class at Gallatin High School in 2007.
Ben’s high school years were filled with achievements of which any parent or family member would be proud. He was involved in student government in high school and still is concerned and interested in politics. He sang for practically every civic group in and around Gallatin. He performed at community events, and was a member of the Gallatin High School Performers for four years, singing with this group of students at every school function and appearing at the Tennessee State General Assembly. They won many awards in competitions all over the southeast.
His sister, Meggie, sang the National Anthem for the Lady Vols. Ben is a huge fan of Vol Nation. According to his mom, his blood runs Orange. In fact, if you will look closely, he will probably be sporting orange in some form on stage at each American Idol event.
Teresa Hollins, Ben’s high school guidance counselor, is one of his biggest fans. “I am so excited about Ben and his success on American Idol,” said Hollins. “We’ve always known how talented he is and are so excited that America knows now. He’s one of my favorite people.
“Ben is a special person and a great guy with a big heart,” Hollins continued. “I have known him for most of his life. He is a special person from a very close family. He has always been very humble and I know he will continue to be so. He has a great sense of humor and America is in for a treat in getting to know him.”
After graduating high school Ben attended college at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU) where he earned a bachelor’s degree in broadcasting, marketing and public relations.
While in college, Ben continued to grow musically. He joined a gospel group called 25 Drive, which made it all the way to the National Quartet Convention.
Tribby recalls coming home several times to the wonderfully rich sound of Ben singing and playing gospel songs on piano by Jake Hess or J.D. Sumner.
“He breathes music,” says Tribby. “He was influenced by gospel at an early age through both his father and his grandfather, who were ministers. But he also loves bluegrass and country. His favorite artist is Johnny Cash, who lived in nearby Hendersonville, Tennessee.”
Of course, growing up in the shadows of the women in his immediate family, Ben also absorbed a lot of his mother’s taste in music. Tribby grew up listening to everything from Barbara Mandrell to Gladys Knight and The Pips — and Elvis.
Another of Ben’s biggest fans, Fox 17 news anchor, Scott Couch, recalls that Ben got his golden ticket to Hollywood on American Idol at the Atlanta auditions. Tribby remembers the first time Ben tried out for American Idol in 2007.
“At 4 a.m. at the Fed Ex Building in Memphis, Tenn., there was a sea of people,” she said. “I’ve never seen that many people, even at a University of Tennessee game,” she said in amazement. “Ben didn’t make the cut that time, but last summer he won first place at American Idol Disney in Orlando, FL, which gave him the dream ticket to Atlanta.”
The rest is unfolding right now amid much excitement and fanfare from Tennessee to Hollywood and beyond.
Couch is impressed that Ben plays more than a half dozen musical instruments. “I believe it’s 10,” says Couch. “He has played guitar on Idol so far, but I expect if he’s fortunate enough to remain in the competition we will see him playing piano soon.”
Ben’s parents, John and Tribby, and his equally talented sister, Meggie, will be watching from home this week with bated breath as their son and brother takes the stage of American Idol again. Tribby says that she feels very confident, and is making plans to go to Hollywood for the big finale. “The other guys are extremely talented, but I feel great about Ben’s chances.”
“It’s been a whirlwind,” laughed Tribby. “I’m prepared, either way. I’ve always known that he would break out someday.”
Ben’s biggest fan is his wife, Courtney. The couple met in college at MTSU, fell deeply in love and were married last June. Courtney’s friend and Oliver Spring’s, Tenn., high school classmate, Janelle Arthur, was also an American Idol contestant last season. Arthur has encouraged Ben every step of the way.
Scott Couch and Ben’s family, both in Tennessee and in Cullman, stress that Ben’s staying on the show from here on out will rely on America’s vote. Viewers can vote on their favorite performers during the show and for two hours after the show ends each week.
American Idol airs on Fox TV stations coast to coast on Wednesday and Thursday nights at 7 p.m. Central Time, 8 p.m. Eastern time.
On the eve of the final competition, Ben Briley will take a last long look at the picture of his great-grandmother, Kitty Cora Cline, which sits in his dressing room in Hollywood. Taking a deep breath he will walk out on stage where the tide will turn for one young person that night…and if it should be Ben, then a single star in the floor of Heaven will certainly shine just a little more brightly as Kitty Cora Cline’s great-grandson carries on her legacy.
Links to live videos provided by Fox Channel 17 and Scott Couch:
Here is a recent interview with Ben and people in Hollywood: