MT. PLEASANT — As the first strums of Cali Wilson’s guitar come over the speakers at the Mt. Pleasant Middle School gym, a hush overtook the crowd of rambunctious students. Middle schoolers that had previously been goofing around seem to enter a trance, eyes focused on the 28-year-old Salem native as she began to sing.
Wilson, a contestant on season 17 of The Voice, returned to southeast Iowa for a full day of activities, which included touring local schools she attended, where she spoke on her blossoming career as a musician and her experience on the nationally televised show.
Starting off her morning with the sixth through eighth-graders, Wilson homed in on two things as she spoke to the students: hard work and kindness.
In a short address to the students before she began a performance, which included several original songs, the singer-songwriter started by talking about growing up in southeast Iowa.
“I don’t know if you know this but I’m from right here. I played sports in this gym, I ate lunch in the cafeteria, I was in these classrooms and learned what ya’ll are learning currently,” she said.
As Wilson began outlining her journey on The Voice, she explained that 40,000 people across the nation auditioned for the current season of the singing competition show.
“I was one of 40,000 of 48 people that made it onto teams … but the big thing I want you guys to know is that I auditioned season 12. I got a ‘no’ that year … In those three years, I told myself that no matter what anybody says, I am who I am. I am a genuine human. I grew up in this small community that built me up and told me that I could be something special no matter where I’m from,” Wilson said.
After that initial rejection, Wilson told students how she decided to take a leap and move to Tennessee, putting more time and effort in chasing her dream.
“I took the opportunity to move to Nashville, and I said, ‘I’m going to do this music thing, I’m going to give it my all. All the hard work I have in my soul, in my heart and I’m going to do this thing. I’m going to push past my fear.’ And that’s the biggest thing you can do. If you push past that fear, it works wonders in your life. If you’re a genuine human, you push past fear,” she continued.
“I would not have got as far as I got … if I wasn’t kind to people. Be kind, be kind to everybody. You could make a lasting impact on somebody. That’s what I do on stage. I sit up there and I sing and I watch people smile and get something from my voice and from my songs … I leave a lasting impact on people,” Wilson noted.
The Panther alum also touched on hoping to inspire and encourage students to pursue the arts.
“I’m really excited to be here and I don’t think I had anybody visit[ed] during my middle school time that was quite like me so I just hope I can shine a light on the arts and music and how hard it is to be in the music industry and how hard it is to work toward your dreams,” Wilson said.
Following her address, Wilson performed a selection of songs, beginning with a cover of Kacey Musgraves’ “Butterflies,” before performing three original songs titled, “Say It First,” “New Colors” and “Ups and Downs.”
Megan Borders, an eighth-grader who sings in various choirs at the middle school, excitedly explained that it was inspiring to be able to meet someone who has chased their dreams and found success, especially coming from a small town in Iowa.
“It’s an honor to have a singer who has been on The Voice [at our school], someone who went to our school. It’s really cool to meet her. It’s really cool to see someone who got that far, coming from this small town middle school and got to be really big and famous,” Borders said.
While Wilson’s main role during the assembly was to speak to students, teachers and other adults in the room were also inspired by her success.
Adam Creager, the seventh and eighth grade instrumental music teacher, said he personally found it inspirational as a teacher to hear success stories of former students.
“I find it personally really exciting that she’s from the area. She’s gone so far and done so well and for her to come back and talk to students about her journey about what it does take to get to that level. And I do think it’s inspirational for kids. It’s inspirational for adults to see a former student come back too,” he noted.
“It creates in you a feeling of joy and passion … It’s just one of those things that reaches people on a different level … It’s a great thing to have her come back and share that. Look at where I come from, where I’ve gone and what I can do,” Creager remarked on the importance of students having access to the arts in school and how Wilson’s presence and success is an example of where students can take their passion.
Following her visit with the middle school, Wilson also stopped by Mt. Pleasant High School and Salem Elementary. Wilson capped off her day with a parade in Salem that began at 4:30 p.m. that was followed by a soup supper and auction to help Wilson raise funds to record an album and hire a band to begin touring. The singer was also awarded a key to the city of Salem for being a positive example for the community.