SPRING HILL — American Idol contestant Aaron Kelly has made his way from humble beginnings to Hollywood.
And as the 17-year-old remains one of six finalists during the popular television show's ninth season, he has a dedicated local following.
Family and friends from Hernando and Pasco counties get together each Tuesday evening at B.B. MaGee's Bar & Grill, 12400 County Line Road, to watch Kelly perform, cheer him on, and say they "knew him when."
"We're so proud of him; he's done good," said Charlie Burge of Spring Hill, Aaron's second cousin. Aaron's adoptive father, Greg Kelly, attended the event last week, but is under contract with American Idol and cannot comment or have his picture taken. Debbie Burge, Charlie's wife, is the driving force behind this fan club.
"He's following his dreams, and he's worked so hard," Debbie said, "and after he performs we vote, vote, vote!"
Each week, the tension mounts.
American Idol airs twice a week on the Fox network. Contestants perform a song on Tuesday night, viewers vote for their favorites by calling in, and then on Wednesday night the results are announced. The person with the fewest audience votes is sent home.
Judges, including the infamous Simon Cowell, voice their opinions about the performance. However, at this point in the show, it's the viewers who make the final decision. The winner will be awarded a major recording contract and the chance to hit it big.
Kelly is safe for another week. Though he was among the bottom three vote-getters last week, his supporters are hopeful he'll make it to the top five.
The group of about 30 fans meets each week to swap stories and munch on chicken wings. Aaron's Sales and Lease in Spring Hill donated a 73-inch flat-screen TV for the weekly meet-up. Fans wave hand-drawn signs reading "We love Aaron" and "Our American Idol."
"It's kind of cool to know somebody who knows somebody," said Kathy Dewey, co-owner of B.B. MaGee's Bar & Grill. She and her husband, Scott, purchased the bar just over a year ago, and when Debbie Burge approached them about hosting a weekly event they readily agreed.
"We love music," said Scott Dewey. "And we love American Idol," said Kathy Dewey, who has watched the show since the beginning.
Though he now lives in Sonestown, Pa., Kelly has strong ties to Florida. He was born in Sarasota and lived in Haines City before moving to Pennsylvania about five years ago.
Last week, local country legends Wiley Fox showed up to lend their support at the Tuesday night gathering.
Kelly and Wiley Fox go way back. When Kelly was about 9 years old, Debbie Burge and his adoptive mother, Kelly Kiess, took him to a Charlie Daniels fundraiser for the Angelus where Wiley Fox was performing.
"His mom brought him over and said, 'Can my son sing with you guys?' and we said, 'Sure' — not knowing what to expect," said Jesse Embry, lead vocalist for Wiley Fox.
But when little Aaron walked onstage wearing a cowboy hat and opened his mouth to sing, Embry said he knew the kid was "something special."
"The whole place went nuts — such a big voice for a little guy at 9 years old," said Embry.
Each year, Kelly has been invited back.
Kelly has performed at the Charlie Daniels/Seminole Hard Rock Hotel & Casino Celebrity Golf Classic & Angelus Country Concert since 2003, an event loosely dubbed "Charlie Palooza." Over the years, Kelly has shared the stage with greats such as the Marshall Tucker Band and Charlie Daniels himself. The annual event raises money for the Angelus, a nonprofit group home in Hudson for severely handicapped children and adults.
"All the residents are following the show, and they want (Kelly) to do well. But they also want him to come back and visit and sing for them," said Joe Neri, executive director of the Angelus.
Debbie Burge remembers the first time she heard Aaron sing. She and family members were lounging poolside at a Memorial Day family reunion. Little 7-year-old Aaron was sitting on the edge of the pool and just started singing.
"I was just blown away; we all were," Burge said.
After that, the family encouraged him to pursue his dreams. He began singing karaoke at flea markets and local fairs and even dabbled in modeling.
"When Aaron was born, we were all around to see him, and look at him now," said Tammy Drinkard, Debbie's daughter.
According to his family, Kelly is a true survivor. When he was just a toddler, he and his brother, Curtis, just a year older, survived a house fire. Aaron sustained minor burns, but his brother was severely burned.
After the fire, the family was struggling financially. Aaron and Curtis were adopted by their biological uncle, Greg, and his former wife, Kelly. Greg and Kelly divorced a little more than a year ago.
"Our family is very close, and it was important to everyone that the boys stay in the family," said Debbie Burge, adding that Kelly and Greg raised the boys as their own and gave them a great life. Kelly has dedicated her life to Aaron's career.
"He's such a humble, good kid. I love him like one of my own sons," said Terry Embry, wife of Brandon, Wiley Fox lead guitarist.
Jesse Embry agrees.
"We've had a special place in our hearts for him. Besides his ability, he's just such a sweet kid," said Jesse.
Wiley Fox says they want to write him a hit song.
"Even if he doesn't make it to the finals," Debbie Burge said, "he will always be our American Idol.”