Published on 05/26/21

4-H alumnus Willie Spence brings the rhythm of Georgia to American Idol

By Courtney Cameron

Willie Spence, who once took the stage as a member of the Georgia 4-H Clovers and Company youth performance group, rose to command one of the most recognizable stages in the world as runner up for the 2021 American Idol season finale on May 23.

Clovers and Co. is no stranger to fostering icons. Many stars — including Jennifer Nettles, a member of Grammy Award-winning band Sugarland — have gotten their start in the Georgia 4-H program. In fact, Nettles and Spence are both from Douglas, Georgia, where their talents were cultivated through Georgia 4-H. 

From the moment he auditioned at the start of the 2021 American Idol season, Spence left the judges in awe. With his soulful and emotional performances, he brought the judges to tears and Spence quickly became a fan favorite as he shared his story through song.

Throughout the show’s season, Spence often spoke of how his experiences in Georgia 4-H shaped him into the man standing on the stage.

“Wow. I can’t believe this season of American Idol has come to an end! This has really been the best experience of my life,” Spence wrote on his Facebook page. “I’m so grateful for everything that has happened over the past few months. Thank you to everyone who’s been supporting me throughout this whole American Idol journey! This is definitely NOT the end! Now it’s just the beginning! I’m so ready to make some dope music for you guys, I’ve literally been waiting for this moment. I’m truly thankful and blessed, everything happens for a reason. On to my next chapter in life.”

“Willie began his involvement with 4-H in the fifth grade and was president of his school’s club in sixth grade,” stated Gracie Kuyrkendall, the Georgia state 4-H events coordinator. “Willie was incredibly involved in Coffee County 4-H, and we are so proud of all that he’s accomplished.”

After a year of distancing and staying in their homes, Georgians across the state rallied around Spence when he returned to his roots for a hometown visit, an American Idol tradition for each season’s top three performers before the Idol finale. Georgians rolled out the red carpet, with Gov. Brian Kemp declaring “Willie Spence Week” in Georgia and telling Spence he “made Georgia proud” in a Twitter post after the finale.

On May 18, Spence was awarded the key to the city in his hometown, where family, friends and a crowd of well-wishers showered Spence with love and praise.

“During his visit to Douglas on Tuesday he was greeted by several current former Clovers and Company cast members. The cast members performed for Willie and attended the gathering at the Coffee County High Stadium (where Willie performed),” said Arch Smith, state 4-H leader and director, who attended the celebration. “There were 2,000-plus people in attendance, including many of Willie’s family members and close friends. Willie’s performance included five songs, and he took time to express appreciation to his hometown.” 

On May 23, Spence performed in the season finale as one of three finalists for the title of 2021 American Idol winner. Opening with the iconic “Georgia on My Mind,” Spence performed several songs, concluding with the inspirational “Stand Up.”

Although he was not proclaimed the winner of the 2021 season of American Idol, Spence showcased what it means to be a Georgia 4-H'er. He was compassionate and driven until the end. He might not be the new American Idol, but he is 4-H's Georgia-grown idol.

Courtney Cameron is a digital marketing intern for the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Office of Marketing and Communications.

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