Cawood Ledford, Wallace “Wah Wah” Jones, Bernie Bickerstaff, Jerry Chestnut and Nick Lachey. These are only a few of the notable names that come to mind when listing Harlan County legends.
A new name has emerged in recent months, with his music topping the iTunes charts, his face appearing on billboards, and personal appearances on national TV news and talk shows.
Jordan Smith, winner of Season 9 of The Voice, has earned hero status in his home county, across the region and around the state. But local officials say they believe he brought much needed positive national and international attention to the southeastern Kentucky region, which is suffering greatly as a result of a dying coal economy. Smith’s performances generated excitement for a region struggling to identify new avenues for financial survival.
Officials say the win is a significant accomplishment for Smith personally and the region as a whole. With it comes new hope, correction of stereotypical images, and growth in the teamwork concept local residents and leaders believe is vital for change.
“Jordan Smith’s triumphant victory cannot be underestimated,” says Sandi Curd, the Promise Zone coordinator for Kentucky Highlands Investment Corporation, an organization heavily involved with identifying a new economy for the region. President Barack Obama signed a declaration in January 2014 to give an eight-county region priority in grants and other federal assistance because of the high unemployment rate and critical need to rebuild an economy.
“In a region that has not only been knocked down, but continues to be kicked, Jordan’s national success provides a big dose of hope that all is not lost,” Curd says.
Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley says Smith “ignited a fire under so many people in Harlan County and eastern Kentucky. At a time where hope has dwindled due to the economic situation, Jordan proved that just because you are from an area that has disadvantages doesn’t mean you can’t succeed. He proved what so many of us have preached for years—no goal is too high, no dream is too big.”
Mosley called Smith’s success “an answered prayer.”
“Many people in the county have been praying for something positive to happen,” says Mosley, the chief elected official in a county that has seen its population plummet by thousands over the last two decades and now is home to only about 28,000 residents as a result of coal miners and their families leaving the area to find work. Layoffs have become a common occurrence in the coalfields as a result of stricter EPA guidelines enacted on the mining of coal.
Smith’s appearance on The Voice did much more than turn the four-judge’s chairs on the popular NBC musical competition.
“The energy and excitement generated from watching this process unfold have been unprecedented for our county," Mosely says. "We couldn’t be more proud or more thankful for the success he has achieved. Jordan may have single-handedly reversed negative stereotypes on our region that will help give us an economic bump."
Harlan Tourist and Convention Commission Executive Director Brandon Pennington was involved with organizing watch parties and other promotional efforts for Smith during the competition. He saw an increase in outside interests in the area during that time as Smith advanced and even much more so since he was announced the winner.
Just after Smith's win was a "crazy" time, Pennington says, “with people calling about how they can get in touch with Jordan or his agent to see if he would be available to sing at various events, to make appearances at festivals, ballgames, etc. … People want to see Jordan, meet Jordan, and of course, hear him sing.”
Pennington says visitors came from across Kentucky and surrounding states to take part in local events during the competition and the homecoming celebration held just before Christmas to honor Smith. U.S. Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers, state legislators, Mosley and others bestowed special awards and recognitions upon Smith during a public gathering that drew thousands to downtown Harlan. Smith was showered with confetti and cheers as he rode the grand marshal float in a parade that passed along streets lined with people, much as it was in the town’s prime decades ago, when storefronts were filled with prospering businesses. Today, many of the buildings the parade passed sit empty, awaiting an upswing in the economy to bring new business or expand current retail.
“Knowing that we have visitors inquiring about our area and visiting Harlan based on Jordan’s accomplishments means people are spending money in our area, whether in hotel stays, eating at restaurants, or shopping at our stores,” Pennington says.
Steve Tolliver, president of The Bank of Harlan, agrees Smith being from Harlan County is a great fete, noting it “certainly has given our county something to proud of, and another positive thing for our community to be known for. The best thing I see is that Jordan speaks so positively about our community that we could see some tourism. Everybody goes to Graceland! If our community could gain the endorsements for tourism, that would be great. If he were to name the Blanton Forest, Black Mountain Trail and other reasons to visit the area, it could help the economy. A tourism video featuring him could be dynamite.”
Tolliver’s bank sponsored a large billboard in Harlan to encourage support for Smith, recognizing the significant impact his success could have for the area.
WBIR-TV from Knoxville, Tennessee, provided substantial coverage for Smith throughout the competition, with live feeds from Los Angeles to keep the folks at home informed. Even though it was an NBC program, regional CBS affiliate WYMT from Hazard shared news of Jordan’s success and the way the locals at home were supporting him. When the finale came, stations from Lexington and Louisville also visited the area. The Associated Press, larger state newspapers and other print and broadcast media converged on Harlan County as well.
Normally, you would see a number of TV satellite trucks at one time in Harlan County in the wake of a tragedy, such as a mine disaster. Not this time, says Mosley with a smile. The win is “huge” for not only Smith, but also the entire region.
Emily Ann Roberts, the runner-up to Smith, is from Knoxville, about two hours from Harlan. That also prompted discussion of the artistic talent that exists in the region—something officials hope to promote as well.
“His accomplishments bring light to the multifaceted and talented people of our area, which has been an untapped source for many years,” Pennington says. “We have so many wonderfully talented folks.”
During the contest, Smith stuck with his message of “being who you are” and embracing the things in life that make you different. “For Jordan to bring those messages to a national presence from his small town roots and his mountain heritage, it allows us to open up conversations that preconceived notions of ‘who we are’ is not necessarily defined by the stereotypes and typical portrayals in the media,” Pennington notes.
Pennington stresses his belief that the greatest impact is the unity coming from within the community. “For our community to come together and root for Jordan gave us something to believe in. It gave us hope. That is immeasurable in the grand scheme of things,” he says.
Curd says it is imperative the county and region keep the momentum created by Jordan and The Voice going. She said the Team Jordan concept brought together the local and regional community, the state and nation.
“We could not wish him into victory; we had to work together. Working together is our future. Now we know what it looks like, how it feels and what it can do,” she says.
Curd explains that Smith is a living example of an individual taking a natural resource, working extremely hard to perfect that resource, and then taking a risk. The entrepreneurial concept is the key to reviving the economy, she says.
“Jordan risked humiliation, rejection, financial resources and all the opportunities he could have been doing instead of competing. These are exactly the same risks every entrepreneur faces every single day,” she says.
Curd says everyone must now apply “the teamwork, encouragement and optimism to every project, every business and every classroom. Let us support those who take the risks with a Team Jordan enthusiasm.”
Mosley certainly agrees with Curd, pointing out that Smith is the example to share on how and why you reach your goals. Smith tried out for The Voice last season, but didn’t make the show. This year was a different story.
“Let’s all use this as the example for why you can reach your goals,” he says. “Let’s utilize this story to show that nothing can hold you back. Let’s show that Jordan got knocked down, but he didn’t get knocked out. He got back up and he tried again and it paid dividends. We can all utilize Jordan’s journey in our own professional and personal lives in different ways. He has inspired us all, and now we must transition that inspiration to action in different ways.”
Smith winning The Voice won’t soon be forgotten around here.
“Jordan was authentic on the show," Pennington says. "Jordan was himself on the show and stuck to his roots, his morals and his values. Watching my community—watching the world connect with him—was amazing and an experience I will never forget."