As country star Blake Shelton said on last week’s “The Voice” episode, “Let’s talk about accents for a minute.”
A contestant had just finished playing the guitar and singing “To Love Somebody” when he proudly proclaimed, “My name is Rod Stokes, I’m 34 years old and I’m from Grand Bay, Alabama.”
See, he said that last bit nearly the same way Forrest Gump famously said “Greenbow, Alabama.” And he pronounced Stokes with several extra vowel sounds in that way only Southerners who never left home can.
His “right” sounds more like “riot,” his “coast” is two syllables, and the “i” in his “like” is as long as a month of Sundays.
But Alabama doesn’t get all the credit for Stokes’ Southern drawl. As he says, “I’m a Mississippi boy.”
Before he auditioned in front of millions of people on season 16 of “The Voice,” and before he got married and moved across Mobile Bay, Stokes was “born and raised in Moss Point.”
A week ago, he debuted on television during the last episode of the Blind Auditions, where four celebrity judges hear people sing behind them and turn their chairs if they want someone to join their team.
“It was so nerve-wracking,” Stokes told the Sun Herald on Tuesday. Even though he was visibly a little shaky, his powerful voice cut through the nerves and brought a Chris Stapleton-meets-Rascal Flatts feel to the Bee Gees song.
Adam Levine was the first to turn, less than 30 seconds in.
“I really wanted to just stop and really, I guess you’d say, ‘fan girl’ or whatever,” Stokes laughed. “I wanted to scream real loud. I was, like, so excited.”
“Then John Legend turned and my knees got weak. And then Blake Shelton turned and I... it was like an out-of-body experience.”
He unsurprisingly chose to take the last spot on Shelton’s team. Levine tried his darndest to convince Stokes otherwise, as Levine’s (usually unsuccessful) goal season after season is to steal country singers away from rival Blake Shelton.
But Stokes was set on Shelton. “It’s the blue eyes,” Stokes said during the episode. “He’s captivating.”
“They are mesmerizing,” Levine agreed.
Growing up on the Mississippi Coast, Stokes wasn’t one of those people who started singing from an early age.
“My life was just surrounded by athletics,” he said. “I’m 6’5”, I’m a big guy. I was just always involved in sports comin’ up as a kid.”
He played football and golf at Vancleave High School, and for a short time even joined the football team at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College’s Perkinston campus under Steve Campbell, now head coach at the University of South Alabama.
“I did not sing in front of people until I was a senior in high school,” Stokes said.
But he was exposed to plenty of music growing up in Grand Bay Church of God, where his uncle is still the pastor.
He comes from a large Pentecostal family, and likes to say he had to find his wife across state lines because his dad is the “baby boy” of 18 and mom is the youngest of 10.
“I would have married a cousin if I had married a Mississippi girl,” he joked.
Church is where he first got up the courage to sing.
“I sang my first solo — like, by myself, full song — when I was 20 years old at my home church that I’ve attended my entire life. It was “Please Come Down to Me” by The Crabb Family, a gospel group, exactly 15 years ago this month.
“I had to rest the microphone on my chin because I was about to beat my teeth out,” he laughed. “It was that bad.”
But he was hooked.
‘A different path’
As life would have it, his football career lasted only about five weeks. His father fell ill and couldn’t keep up the family construction business for months, so Stokes moved home to help out.
His dad started the company 32 years ago, and it’s just the two of them, plus two other guys.
“We do land clearing, we do ponds, levees, bulkheads,” he said. “We just finished up site work on the new Biloxi fire station off Cedar Lake (Road),” and all the dirt work for a new library on Old Highway 49.
In fact, he’s done Facebook Lives from behind the wheel of a dump truck to promote new episodes of “The Voice.” The latest one featured him “fangirling” over a new Husqvarna Robotic Mower tooling around his lawn like a Roomba.
But the decision to come home isn’t one he regrets.
“I had to run the family business, and after that it’s like the Lord established my feet on a different path and I just took off with music, just wide open,” he said. “It’s really crazy.”
His breakout moment came at a talent evaluation event called Music Explosion at Wilmer First Baptist, off of U.S. 98 between Mobile and Lucedale.
“They would pick one person to open for a gospel group that night, and my daddy begged me to go,” Stokes said.
He was chosen and opened for the Kingdom Heirs quartet. Then-music pastor Barry Jemison, now lead pastor at Journey Church in Lucedale, asked him to get a band together in five or six weeks.
He was able to get family and friends to form what was eventually … wait for it … Rod and Staff.
Stokes said over about nine and a half years they probably played at more than 300 churches across the Southeast.
And last year, it was his idea to audition on “The Voice” Snapchat challenge. He didn’t win, but he did get a spot at the blind auditions this season.
“It was just kind of like a domino effect,” he said. “My wife supported me, she told me to go for it.”
Stokes has stuck to his gospel roots. One of the few videos on his Facebook music page is a moving cover of “Reckless Love,” by Christian worship leader Cory Asbury.
Between Bible verse posts on his personal profile is a sweet video tribute to his wife, Kimberly, where he sings “In Case You Didn’t Know” and changes “a second glass of wine” to “a second glance yeeeah.”
Most Pentecostals don’t drink alcohol, but he’s ironically singing Mitchell Tenpenny’s “Drunk Me” for the Battle Rounds that start Monday night.
“I’ve never been drunk in my life,” he laughed.
“I’m just a simple country boy is all I am,” he said last week. “I have a full-time job daylight to dark and then I travel on the weekends doing ministry and going from church to church.”
He said he’s been blown away by the community response he’s gotten, but he’ll take all the support he can get.
“I hope I can put where I live now, Grand Bay, this little country town, on the map … and all of South Mississippi.”
After all, he wouldn’t be the first Mississippian to start singing at a Pentecostal church and end up on TV screens across the country.