Like every other production in Hollywood, NBC’s “The Voice” was upended by the coronavirus pandemic, and it has filmed remotely for the past several weeks. But even if things had proceeded normally this season, there’s little doubt that Todd Tilghman still would have won.
On Tuesday night, Tilghman triumphed over finalists Thunderstorm Artis, Toneisha Harris, CammWess and Micah Iverson, winning $100,000 and a record deal. At age 41, Tilghman made show history as the oldest singer to win out of all 18 seasons. And his victory stands out for another reason: He has no professional music background, unusual in a competition series that heavily recruits the best singers it can find.
Looking back at other winners, many had already been in bands or performed as touring artists, some previously had record deals, and one was even nominated for a Grammy Award. But Tilghman — a pastor from Meridian, Miss., and a father of eight — said he never gave serious thought to a music career.
“ ‘The Voice’ could change everything for me. Right now, I only sing at church. I don’t perform or record,” Tilghman said in the early weeks of the show. “To be able to support my family strictly through music would be a dream.”
The celebrity coaches were huge fans of Tilghman from the start; he was the very first audition shown during the season premiere in February. Tilghman belted out Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” and instantly spurred the coveted “four-chair turn,” as all the coaches (Blake Shelton, Kelly Clarkson, John Legend and Nick Jonas) hit their buttons and tried to persuade him to join their team.
“I’ve literally never performed. I just sing at church,” Tilghman explained, introducing himself as a pastor. This sparked an attempt to prove who was the biggest church fan; Legend revealed his grandfather was a pastor, and Jonas one-upped him by boasting his father was a pastor. Clarkson buttered him up further by comparing his rasp to Kenny Rogers and Chris Stapleton. But Tilghman went with Shelton, who complimented his energy and “not smooth” vocals.
Even though other contestants offered some competition — Artis in particular was a fan favorite — Tilghman looked like the winner for most of the season. Not only did he deliver consistently strong performances with country songs and ballads (frequently favorites of “Voice” fans), the coaches and viewers loved his upbeat personality and dry sense of humor, as he colorfully described the chaos of life with eight kids.
At the same time, he got emotional talking about his family, especially how his wife urged him to go wait in line for hours at a “Voice” open audition in Atlanta. “I am really thankful that she believed in me in a place in my life where I didn’t even realize that I had sort of stopped believing in myself,” he said.
Then came Monday’s penultimate episode, when he performed MercyMe’s “I Can Only Imagine,” which brought Clarkson to tears, and original track “Long Way Home,” which rocketed to the top of the iTunes all-genre chart. GoldDerby, a predictor of reality competitions, pointed out that Tilghman’s sales were far ahead of his fellow finalists, a clear sign of his impending championship.
So really, it was no surprise when host Carson Daly announced him as the winner. Earlier, Shelton all but predicted he would be victorious, and succinctly summed up his unusual path.
“You’ve kind of been this well-kept secret down there in Meridian, Mississippi. Nobody knew this incredible superstar was lurking in a church down there,” Shelton told Tilghman, and emphasized it again for the camera: “Todd’s really what this show is all about. He’s never sang outside of church before. He lives in a small town. He’s got eight kids. The world should know about these artists.”