NASHVILLE — Kory Wheeler was working his Sunday shift at the coffeehouse when a producer for American Idol came in for a caffeine fix.
“I was making small talk while I was making coffee and said, ‘You know, it’d be a really cool story if you let me come audition,’ ” the Bongo Java barista said Monday. “They did. And here I am.”
A few minutes after singing for judges Harry Connick Jr., Jennifer Lopez and Keith Urban, Wheeler, 25, took off through the doors of Music City Center with Ryan Seacrest and a camera crew in tow, running across the street to tell his co-workers the news: He’s going to Hollywood!
Wheeler is one of the first golden-ticket winners for Season 14 of Fox’s Idol. But he’s not the only unique story in a year where Idol producers are trying to cover more ground in the quest to unearth potential superstars.
“We found one guy who was a pedicab driver,” says senior producer Rob McLeod. “And we brought him in here and the judges liked him.”
In addition to holding auditions in five major cities Idol producers also have accepted contestants through online auditions and a “silver ticket” promotion in which local Fox affiliates hold their own auditions and send the winners to sing for the judges.
Idol also has expanded its bus tour, which traveled to secondary markets last season and yielded finalists Dexter Roberts and C.J. Harris. “When we hit these smaller cities, we really see people come out,” McLeod says. “We’re reaching people who normally wouldn’t be able to come see us.”
Some of those 11 bus-tour stops have drawn more people than the regular audition cities. Richmond, Va., for instance, drew 6,000 people, whereas last week’s initial Nashville auditions drew slightly more than 4,000.
On Sunday, the judges heard approximately 30 singers who survived the first two cuts in Nashville. They expected to hear about that many Monday.
“Sunday was a good day, but it wasn’t an explosive day,” Lopez says. “We found two or three people who could be in…