In the end, country crooner Sundance Head surged past perceived frontrunner Billy Gilman to claim the top spot on last night’s The Voice season 11 finale. His irresistible blend of heart-on-his-sleeve soul and fuss-free country twang proved the perfect ingredients to win America — and judges Blake Shelton (Head’s coach), Adam Levine, Alicia Keys, and Miley Cyrus — over.
Rotten Tomatoes spoke with the singer just as he was boarding a flight to New York City and got his take on the life-changing win, his most memorable performances, and artists he thinks are changing the face of country music for the better.
Benjamin Lindsay for Rotten Tomatoes: Hi, Sundance. Congratulations!
Sundance Head: Thank you, buddy! How are you doing?
RT: Good, good. So walk me through the last 20 hours. How are you feeling?
Head: Man, I really haven’t had any time to think about it. I haven’t gone to bed yet today. We’re at the airport now, been doing interviews all morning. We’re fixing to head out to New York City. So I’m really not sure what to think about all this. It goes fast, buddy — I’ll tell you that.
RT: And how’s your family doing? They must be over the moon.
Head: Yeah, they’re really happy. They’re really excited. They all just went back to Houston on an airplane this morning and are waiting on me to get home, finally. I’ve been out here nine weeks, this trip, so I’m looking forward to settling down in my own house soon — maybe Saturday night or Sunday, hopefully.
RT: Did you realize coming out of last night that you are the first singer to win The Voice who previously competed on American Idol?
Head: I did not know that. That’s pretty neat, actually. They also told me I was the first one to have a No. 1 and No. 2 on the overall at the same time.
RT: I think the new single, “Darlin’ Don’t Go,” especially resonates. What is that song all about?
Head: I wrote that song for my wife when we got in a pretty bad argument one time. I tried to write her a letter to explain to her how sorry I was about the way things were going down, and it really wasn’t coming out the way I wanted it to, so I decided to try to put the pen to paper and write her a love song, basically, to let her know genuinely how much I needed her and loved her. When I played it for her, she loved it, and we both cried. It was one of those moments. I was really excited to be able to record it and to put it on my album, titled Soul Country, and then even more excited to be able to perform it live on the show. For us to have that moment of affection together in front of the world is really special to me, and I know that she enjoyed it, as well.
RT: On The Voice, you’re often singing others’ songs. Have you always written your own music?
Head: Yes, I always have. My brother died in a car accident when I was nine years old, and that Christmas, I found a guitar in the attic. I locked myself in the closet with a Fisher Price tape player and recorded a song that I wrote for him called “Michael,” and that was the first song that I remember writing. That was the very first one. My mom still has it on tape, and I still cry every time I listen to it.
RT: Can we expect to hear that song someday?
Head: I think that’d be really neat, man. Maybe one of these days I’ll cut that. But really, it’s just a special song for me. That was the point that I realized I wanted to actually be a singer and a songwriter. When my brother died, my mother let me go into his bedroom and get anything I wanted, and immediately, I took his record collection. And the rest is history.
RT: I love that between something like “Michael” and something like “Darlin’ Don’t Go,” you’re not afraid to put yourself out there as a songwriter and a performer. You’re writing about personal experiences.
Head: Yes sir, that’s really the only thing I can do. I’ve tried to write novelty songs or hook songs or whatever you want to call it, as it were. I have a lot of buddies and I know a lot of people that write songs that are based on, “What phrase can we put on the back of this T-shirt and sell it at concerts?” I’ve tried that, and I can’t emotionally really attach to something like that. I really have a hard time trying to write anything that I haven’t actually experienced, which also may be detrimental at some point. But right now, that’s the only thing I know how to do.
RT: Well that’s one of the many reasons why you’ve connected with audiences around the country. People have fallen for you and your music as the weeks go by.
Head: Thank you, man. I really try to put my heart into each performance, and I was really thankful to have the opportunity to make each song my own song on this show. They afforded me the freedom to change arrangements and basically do whatever I wanted to do. And to be able to work with [music director] Paul [Mirkovich] and his band and record those iTunes tracks with probably the best band in show business is just amazing.
RT: It’s funny, we saw you tackle these rearrangements, and some of my favorites were the ones that were actual songs for judges on the panel. You’ve got Alicia Keys there while you’re singing “No One,” you’ve got Miley Cyrus while you’re singing “The Climb.” Did that add a layer of nerves to the whole thing?
Head: It absolutely did. I took those two opportunities as very important challenges for me because I want to be considered a legit artist more than anything. And so for me to be able to take those songs, recreate them, make them my own songs, and sing them in front of the actual song creators and original artists, and to have them receive them was really important to me, and I worked hard to consider their emotions and thoughts as well as my own in the performances and arrangements. I’m just thankful for how it turned out.
RT: Looking ahead, do you have any idea what your next album is going to sound like? Where do you foresee this leading?
Head: Well, I think I’m going to have to go to the well on this one. This opportunity is so important to me, and it’s make-or-break. I want to make sure that I hit the head on the nail, but I have a good idea of who I want to be. I know who I want to be as an artist and songwriter, and I know what I want my music and songs to sound like. That’s going to be my job to go in there to convince the record label that I think I know what’s going on, but it’s also important for me to go in with an open mind and listen to what they have to say.
But I know what I sound like. I think soul-country music — I know that it’s a mixture between R&B and country and kind of the classic rock sound to it. For me, I’m excited to have the opportunity to maybe bring music alive that hasn’t necessarily been popular for a while — something like Chris Stapleton was able to do. He just took that old throwback, badass country-rock and shoved it down everybody’s throats, but they had to like it because it was just so good. I’d like to be able to do something like that and make a record that would be something people will enjoy 10 years from now, 20 years from now. That’s what I’m very passionate about.
RT: Chris Stapleton’s Traveller is definitely among my favorite country releases of the last few years.
Head: It’s just so real. I mean, me personally, I’m tired of hearing voice boxes and computers on songs. I want to hear real people playing real instruments. Wood and wire, real vocals. Something organic. And I think people are ready for that right now, man. There’s a turn going on right now, and I think it’s a really exciting time to be playing real music.
RT: Have you heard Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth? He just scooped up an Album of the Year Grammy nomination.
Head: Yes! I’m a huge Sturgill Simpson fan. I’m all about all of that stuff, man. You know what I love most about him? He doesn’t care what you think his genre is. Sturgill Simpson makes Sturgill Simpson records, Sturgill Simpson songs, and that’s the bottom line. I really admire him for that, and I’d love to be in that same conversation.
RT: Also part of that conversation, if you remember, was that CMA Awards performance with Beyoncé and the Dixie Chicks singing “Daddy Lessons.” It kind of stirred things up. What was your take on that performance?
Head: That’s exciting, really. I think people are tired of the way things are sounding right now. Music is a reflection of a society, I believe, and the whole of society thinks that people deserve stuff just because they’re human beings. But I think we’re coming back around to where people need to understand that if you’re going to be successful and if you want to be rewarded and get a trophy for your performance, then you need to work harder than everybody else. You need to apply yourself more than they do.
I’m a firm believer in, “You get what you give in.” I want to be able to bring a positive outlook to not only music but life, and if for some reason I could do something great that might change someone’s life for the better, than that’s all I really want to do: Spread the message of love and respect. We can all get along without being indifferent, you know? The nation’s divided right now, and I’m not even sure people know why anymore.
RT: Do you feel like this break between the first time you were in the spotlight on Idol and now The Voice 10 years later was necessary?
Head: It absolutely changed my life. Everything I do now is for my family. I have one purpose, and that’s to be the best father that I can be, the best friend that I can be to people. Before, I was doing things out of selfishness. I had a record deal that didn’t go right for me, and looking back now, I used to be really upset at the label, but now I realize it was probably mostly me. I just wasn’t ready for that opportunity. It was bigger than I was, and I’m not afraid to say that now. But I’ve been working really hard and I’ve been treating the world correctly, and I’m fully prepared with all the tools I need to be successful. I’m going to use this platform to reach as many people as I can through music, and I hope to make a change in someone’s life.