It's easy to like Sam Woolf but hard to get to know him, or even feel like you know him. He’s genuinely shy - viewers of “American Idol” saw him blush more than once as he was greeted by adoring fans. But that’s my goal during a visit with him this morning in Bradenton: Get to know the 18-year-old whose self-penned song “I Tried” nearly brought a tear to my eye when I watched him sing it on “American Idol.”
During an invitation-only breakfast in his honor today, he pays attention to the speeches and fields questions - some serious, some silly - directed at him. He signs autograph after autograph and poses for photos that will likely end up as a stranger's profile pic on Facebook. Woolf smiles and appears grateful as he accepts a Pittsburgh Pirates baseball jersey and a key to his hometown from the mayor during the event at Pirate City.
An hour or so later, he’s in the back of the auditorium, surrounded by the grandparents who raised him as a teen and the friends waiting to take their buddy to Busch Gardens. The two men most responsible for helping Woolf reach the Top 5 on Fox’s iconic singing competition show also are close by.
He spent two months in Los Angeles rehearsing, going through wardrobe fittings, eating dinner with a hovering camera crew and singing in front of millions of television viewers. Woolf dealt with Harry Connick, Jr.’s criticisms, Keith Urban's banal praises and Jennifer Lopez's "goosies."
Woolf also turned 18 during his “Idol” run. Chances are, he did not return from L.A. the same young man that left Manatee County.
Back home in Bradenton today, Woolf talks to Del Couch about their plans for issuing an album of the singer-songwriter’s original material following his contractual obligations with "Idol," obligations that involve a nationwide tour with the other Top 10 finalists and includes a Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall date July 17.
Woolf and Couch also discuss whether the Braden River High School senior - who just signed an autograph and posed for a picture with his principal - will attend the Berklee College of Music this fall or postpone school for a year, allowing him time to capitalize on his "Idol" fame; fame that recently included, for instance, an appearance Monday on "Live! With Kelly and Michael."
Talking to Woolf with no Fox-appointed publicist monitoring the conversation, he’s as affable as he is on camera but not nearly as shy.
Woolf wants to have an album of original material released ASAP. He doesn’t flinch at talk that includes a release date that puts him in position for a best new artist Grammy Award.
He would like to connect with fellow Bradenton (and Los Angeles) resident Travis Clark of platinum-selling pop punk band We the Kings to work on writing songs following an invitation from Clark via Twitter.
Woolf is sincere, in a refreshing and almost poignant manner, when he responds to a simple question about his thoughts on the day's attention, namely, receiving a key to the City of Bradenton.
"I don’t feel like I deserve it," Woolf says.
"Yes, Sam, you do," Couch says.
Woolf and I met in November 2011, at a show at the Van Wezel in Sarasota. I recall giving him one of my business cards when I learned that he was a singer-songwriter studying at the Del Couch Music Education Foundation. I also recall him being extremely shy - he never contacted me about the potential story I suggested.
I ask him again, after almost everyone else has left the event, how he feels after "Idol," or at least after the competitive, televised part of "Idol."
“It all went by so quick," he says with that smile. "I feel like I just auditioned and now auditions for next season are getting ready to start in June.”
Woolf was voted off "American Idol" on May 1, not for lack of singing chops but because he failed to exude the charisma that the show’s voting viewers crave. If the winner were selected solely on talent, he could have won for the songwriting and singing talent he exhibited during his performance of the autobiographical “I Tried," written after his mother moved away. For the record, the winner has yet to be determined and Woolf isn’t saying who he is rooting for.
A Top 5 finish on "American Idol," though, is enough to launch a career, and Wednesday’s welcome home breakfast demonstrated the impact he has had on the community. There’s now a Sam Woolf Music Scholarship to benefit aspiring local musicians, awarded via the Del Couch Music Education Foundation.
“The Sam Woolf Music Scholarship is important because it provides a path for these youths to reach their goal," Couch says. "Sam is a mentor to all these kids."
“Sam proved that a kid from a small town can go somewhere,” adds Del Couch’s daughter, Delaney. She's a 14-year-old singer who is still surprised that the same young man who spent time at her house is now a celebrity.
How has "American Idol" affected him?
“I think Sam has grown and matured so much in the past two months," says his grandmother, Jackie Woolf. "I can't believe he could handle the pressure so well and keep his calm and pleasant demeanor."
Roy Woolf, Sam’s grandfather, is standing next to Robert Lischetti, the Sarasota-based voice teacher who has spent the past four years working with the teen.
“When I realized Sam’s talent I wanted to find a voice coach to maximize that beautiful voice," Roy Woolf says. “That’s why he sounds different than the other singers and has that beautiful tone."
Lischetti adds that Sam “learned a classical technique and applied it to his own music."
Roy Woolf offers an anecdote dating back nearly a year, about his grandson's “Idol” audition, which took place in Boston while Sam was taking summer courses at Berklee.
"Sam calls me and says one of the producers said I'm 'marketable,'" Roy Woolf recalls with a chuckle.
Sam did not know the meaning of the word.
Roy Woolf then explains that Sam is doing better in interviews lately, he says, because if he "screws up, they think that's cute."
"He's an All-American boy," Roy Woolf says as both a matter of pride and fact. "What you see is what you get. Plus, he has integrity. 'American Idol' served its purpose. He finally cracked his shell at the end. He's been writing songs since he was 13. 'I want the world to hear me sing my songs,' that's his goal.
“'Idol' will help him reach his goal."
Sam Woolf posters are available for $10 plus shipping online at manateeapparel.com/realizebradenton or you can purchase at Manatee Apparel Graphics at 1130 9th St. W., Bradenton between 9 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Monday through Friday. Visit our Sam Woolf page for past interviews, reviews, photo galleries and videos of his performances this season on "American Idol."