OCEAN CITY – Before he was a Blake Shelton understudy, Dawson Coyle planned his summers around singing and playing guitar for crowds on the Ocean City Boardwalk.
“It’s my home,” Coyle, 18, said of the resort. “I play on the boardwalk probably once a week in the summer. It’s a great vibe, a great environment.”
The 18-year-old Williamstown native brought humble beginnings to Los Angeles, where he has performed in front of celebrity recording artists and millions of TV viewers during the 12th season of "The Voice," a popular talent show on NBC.
In the show’s “blind competition” round, televised last week, Coyle advanced with a chair turn from Shelton, a well-known country artist and TV personality who has judged on "The Voice" since the show began. For the next round, Coyle worked with Shelton and coach Luke Bryan, also a noteworthy country singer.
During the show’s blind auditions, the first of four rounds in the show, four judges pick auditioning singers to represent their teams in the next round, called “The Battles.” There, they coach their understudies as they face off and sing a duet with a partner. The coach then picks one from the pair to advance from there.
In the blind round, each judge is seated facing away from a performer as he or she sings in hopes of advancing, and the judges hit a button to rotate their chair when they pick a singer for their team. Because of the round’s setup, judges only choose contestants based on their performance, Coyle said. Here, a singer’s looks, posture, charm and all else that make up the so-called “it” factor means zilch.
“That’s what I love about this show compared to any other singing show. They’re not looking at you,” he said. “They’re not judging stage performance, height. They’re going purely and solely off of your vocals.”
In an episode aired Tuesday, March 14, Shelton turned his chair as Coyle wrapped up an audience-rousing rendition of “Happiness” by NeedToBreathe, a Christian rock band from South Carolina.
When it ended, the South Jersey teen cupped his hands around his face and looked upward as the audience and Shelton gave him a standing ovation.
Adam Levine, Maroon 5 frontman and judge on the show, congratulated Coyle for joining “Team Ding Dong.”
Another judge, Gwen Stefani, praised Coyle on his song choice.
“It says a lot about you to choose a lyric like that, and to be so revealing about your heart,” she said. “That was cool. Really cool.”
Shelton followed up with more praise for a smiling Coyle.
“My favorite thing about your voice is how much absolute passion and how much of yourself you pour into your performance,” he said. “I’ve only heard you sing one time, but dude, I believe you.”
The show’s fourth judge, Alicia Keyes, told Coyle he has a beautiful voice.
And yet, Coyle’s voice came to light by accident, when his beginner’s guitar class needed a singer for its finale performance. Coyle was around 12 or 13 at the time, he said.
“They needed a vocalist for the closing seminar,” he said. “My mom forced me to raise my hand. I sang and it was horrible. I could kind of keep a tune, but I wasn’t into singing.”
That class was Coyle’s first taste of music. He used a Yamaha Classical Spanish guitar, a gift from his aunt and uncle.
“The fret board on a classical Spanish guitar is a lot larger than any other fret board,” Coyle said. “The entire class made fun of me because I had to stretch my hand more to reach the cords.”
About three years ago, Coyle started playing for tips on Ocean City’s boardwalk. His father, David Coyle, said his son often draws a decent-sized crowd when he sets up with his Taylor acoustic guitar and starts to play.
“I head down there and sing my heart out,” Dawson Coyle said. “I do a lot of covers, whatever’s kind of popular. Some of my favorite songs that were popular and that people forgot, but I haven’t forgot.”
The elder Coyle has been closely involved with his son’s music, managing Dawson as he recorded his first EP and began playing in festivals, charity functions, church events and concert halls in New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and New York.
But it’s was still surreal to see his son taking the stage on a primetime network television show watched by millions of viewers worldwide, he said.
Their family has also faced recent tragedy, David Coyle said. While Dawson’s participation on "The Voice" has given them something to cheer for, the teen’s family home burned down in March 2016, and David’s father, whom Dawson called “Pappi,” died nine months later on Christmas night.
“I’m so proud of him, especially with the year we had,” David Coyle said.
Dawson Coyle said his time on "The Voice" has been life-changing. Shown at the end of his audition embracing Shelton, Coyle thanked him and said "This changes everything."
But however far it takes him, he said his summer routine will stay the same.
“I’m never going to stop coming there,” he said of the Ocean City boardwalk. “I’m going to try to push to play as much as I possibly can.”