Wheeler’s blind audition on NBC’s The Voice resulted in a four-chair turn and Kelly Clarkson blocking Blake Shelton.
Dover may be best-known as the birthplace of country music star Mel Tillis and as the home of Strawberry Crest High School. Outside of those two things, you’d have a heck of a time finding someone from more than 15 miles in any direction who knows anything about it — let alone where it is on a map.
But Dover has always been important to Kenzie Wheeler, another native son of the community. Wheeler is a Crest alumnus who has lived there for all 22 years of his life and, unlike many from the Dover/Plant City area who say they’re from Tampa when they travel, he has no problem letting others far and wide know exactly where he hangs his hat.
Now that he’s appeared on NBC’s The Voice, trended on social media with a rave review from the show’s four judges and specifically said he’s “from Dover, Florida,” Wheeler may have just started to pick up where Tillis left off in terms of putting Dover on the map.
“It was natural,” Wheeler said. “I’ve always lived here. I’m a Dover native. I lived here all my life. I wanted to say I’m from Dover, Florida… I wanted to make my hometown, my family and friends proud. Mel Tillis did it a long time ago, and I’d like to do it again and maybe put it more on the map.”
He didn’t get very far into his performance of Keith Whitley’s “Don’t Close Your Eyes” before Kelly Clarkson freaked out, smashed the “block button” to prevent Blake Shelton from recruiting Wheeler to his own team and turned her chair around to see Wheeler and his glorious mullet (a “triple threat mullet,” Shelton said) for the first time. The three others — Shelton, Nick Jonas and John Legend — soon followed.
The judges may not have expected that deep, soulful baritone nailing that late 1980s country sound to come from a 22-year-old, but the potential was undeniable.
“I wasn’t expecting (Clarkson) to turn around that fast,” Wheeler said. “I smiled and kept singing… I went into my blind audition just trying to do my best, hoping to get one chair. I got four and a block. It for sure made me feel more at ease, more confident that she turned around. I just tried to focus on the performance and give them the best vocals that I could. I guess it was good enough.”
In the end, neither Jonas nor Legend could compete with Clarkson’s recruiting pitch (she’s won the show with country artists on two separate occasions). Wheeler joined her team and a dream became reality.
“Getting the opportunity to actually be on this show was something I always dreamed about when I was younger,” Wheeler said. “I used to watch it here and there. My mom loves to watch it. Everybody on the show is amazing and the people you meet, the friendships you make, that’s the biggest part about it. I’ll have these friendships for the rest of my life. Overall, it’s a great experience.”
Music wasn’t Wheeler’s only love growing up, but the signs of him eventually trying to make a career out of it were there from the beginning.
Wheeler sang with the Hillsborough All-County Chorus in elementary school and loved singing duets with his mother during impromptu car ride karaoke sessions. He said he put singing aside in middle school when his voice began to change, but he decided to get back into it during his sophomore year at Crest. Now armed with a vocal range perfectly suited for the 1980s and 1990s country sound he always loved, Wheeler frequented the karaoke sessions and contests at Uncle Mike’s Smokehouse in Plant City. As with his debut on The Voice, it didn’t take long for him to get noticed.
Baseball, Wheeler’s other love, wasn’t going quite as well as he had hoped it would. He decided to give up the sport to put more of his time and energy into music and that gamble paid off.
“I went the music route, quit baseball to pursue my dream in hopes that one day, I’d make it big,” Wheeler said. “And here we are.”
Wheeler’s performances at Uncle Mike’s led to him winning the Tampa Teen Idol competition and making connections with Grammy-winning producer and Plant City native Cliff Brown, singers Michael Ray and Riley Green and many more in the industry. Wheeler released his 10-song debut album — naturally, he called it “Dover” — on Nov. 1, 2018 and has since headlined a show at House of Blues Orlando, opened for Charlie Daniels and Craig Campbell, performed with Green and Ray and, of course, got on The Voice after the video his mother sent during NBC’s most recent search for talent was well-received.
“When I was 16, 17, I always wanted to go on a show but I didn’t think I was ready yet,” Wheeler said. “My mom signed me up, sent the video in. She’s always pushed me through everything, through music and life itself. She’s been there through the ups and downs.”
Wheeler obviously can’t give away too many details about his run through this season of The Voice right now. He did, however, say he’d like to make some new music when the show is over. If you enjoyed his take on Whitley’s classic and are a fan of the sound of that era, you’re in luck: if Wheeler’s career goes the way he hopes it will, you can expect him to help bring that sound back into the mainstream.
“When I record some new songs in the future, do an EP or single, I want to lean toward that older sound,” he said. “I guess you could say I’d try to start bringing it back because that’s the music I love. That’s what I want my sound to be in the future.”
You can get Dover on all major streaming platforms and watch the music video for “Got Her Goodbye On” on YouTube. And maybe, when the Florida Strawberry Festival brings headline entertainment back to the Wish Farms Soundstage, you’ll be able to watch him perform live on the stage where he grew up watching so many others perform.
“Oh man, I hope so,” Wheeler said. “That’s one thing — every year my mom would say ‘Kenzie, you’re gonna play up there one day.’ Hopefully I can get in there in the future. That would be crazy and awesome. A hometown boy playing on the hometown stage. She’ll bawl her eyes out.”