Quite often we find that fate plays a significant role in our lives. So it was for local country artist Matt VanFossen. A native of Martins Ferry, the John Marshall graduate credits a decision he made as a senior in high school for setting his feet on the path to Nashville and the main stage at Jamboree in the Hills.
"I was always singing as a little kid," VanFossen recalled. "It might seem a little strange, but my favorite country artist was Reba McEntire, and I used to put on shows as a young boy where I would be singing her songs."
Admitting it might have been unusual for a boy to have a female artist as an idol, he is steadfast in his belief that she is one of the greatest country singers and remains a major influence on his music today. He was always one of the first to buy her new albums - in fact he made his first trip to Jamboree in the Hills to see Reba perform in 2008.
Regrettably, a divorce would dampen his love of music in the adolescent years when his mother remarried and his step-father was not a big fan of his talent. "He used to say my singing sounded like a sack of cats being beaten," VanFossen revealed.
As a result, he gave up on his first love and became quite self conscious about performing in public, that was until his final year of high school. He was faced with taking an elective credit and as fate would have it, he chose choir.
The choir director, who coincidentally was another Reba, Reba Ichard, heard something in that audition. Recognizing his talent, she encouraged young Matthew to join the elite Monarch choir which performed advanced choral literature and technique.
"She really pushed me. She was always telling me to sing out," VanFossen explained. "She gave me back my confidence, and I give her so much of the credit for making it possible for me to be here where I am today."
VanFossen qualified that adding he did have strong support from the rest of his family for his singing. "My grandma has been to all but one of my performances, and my mother was my strongest supporter."
Sadly, his mother suffered a fatal stroke in 2010, but it was not before her son had a song played on the radio. Following his top three finish in Wheeling Island Idol, VanFossen recorded and released his debut single, "Time Ain't What It Used To Be."
It played on local WOVK radio, and the first time it aired, he was in the car with his mother. "It was surreal. You never forget the first time you hear yourself on the radio, and I remember my mom crying."
"When I asked her why she was crying, she said that it was because she was so proud that her little boy was on the radio," he recalled. The song rose to number 76 on the top 98, and he was the second most played artist on the local station. "I am very thankful for all the support from Jim Elliott and WOVK."
"I heard my song again on WOVK when I was coming back from Columbus to see her one last time after her stroke, and my song played on the radio as I was driving into the tunnels."
"I felt that was a sign that this is what I am supposed to do with my life." said VanFossen. "I miss my mom every day, and I am dedicating everything I do to her."
"I feel that if I could overcome something like that, it really has strengthened me, strengthened my resolve," he added. "I am working hard to further my career and still trying to make the people close to me proud."
VanFossen maintains strong family support. His aunt and grandmother, Midge, are integral parts of his production team helping manage his new venture - he has formed a band with some local musicians and is excited about the possibilities.
"We have got a lot of Michaels," said Van Fossen. The group features Michael Sebulsky on guitar and vocals, Michael Anderson on keyboards and vocals and Michael McDonald on drums. The other members are Josh Benson on guitar and Matt Penhos on bass.
The singer's recent trip to Nashville with the band reaffirmed his belief in pursuing the dream because of some positive feedback from the locals. "A barmaid at the Whiskey Bent requested a song, and I had to perform it a capella. She had great compliments and a $50 tip for me after the performance, which lasted an hour longer than scheduled."
"You have the ability to draw people into a song," VanFossen said the bar's owner noted. "He said I had a unique way of chewing on a word and compared me to George Jones."
Lofty praise, but the young artist is keeping everything in perspective. "I am so blessed to have these opportunities, most people never get the chance to do what they love."
Two years after his first visit to Jamboree In The Hills, VanFossen had the opportunity to sing on the side stage in 2010 and 2011. He graduates to the main stage this year, kicking off the Sunday line-up. "Kelly Tucker-Jones (General Manager - Jamboree In The Hills) took me out there just to stand on the main stage and get a feel for it. It was awesome."
VanFossen said he will be performing some of his original music and some fan favorite covers, but there are no plans at this time to perform a Reba song on stage.
"I hope everyone will get up early and come out to the show," he said. "It really doesn't matter to me if there are 100 or a couple thousand people in the crowd. I just want the chance to sing for them, and hopefully when I leave the stage they will have been entertained."
Jambo veteran Neal McCoy is headlining the day along with Sammy Kershaw, The Oak Ridge Boys and Aaron Tippin. Tickets are still available at the box office or online.
Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org