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‘Country voice,’ Suburban star

Woodraska makes top 10 in Arlington Heights talent contest

James Woodraska plays a 1970 Gibson J45 acoustic guitar outside his home in Millington Wednesday afternoon.
James Woodraska plays a 1970 Gibson J45 acoustic guitar outside his home in Millington Wednesday afternoon.

MILLINGTON, Ill. — It all started about a year ago.

James Woodraska, 20, of Millington, was working full-time as a housekeeper in Norway, Ill. and part-time at Cracker Barrel just last summer. At the time, playing guitar and singing was just a hobby.

But then, a friend invited him to perform at her father’s bar Friday and Saturday nights, and he took the offer.

For several months, he worked all three jobs — housekeeping, Cracker Barrel and the weekend gigs.

He soon realized, however, he could make a living by performing full-time.

“I can get paid to do this? Bye, bye housekeeping, hello guitar!” he remembers thinking.

So Woodraska left his housekeeping and Cracker Barrel jobs and began the musician’s struggle of finding places to play his music and getting the audience to take him seriously.

“I’m not a kid pretending to be a rock star,” he said.

He is currently working on original pieces, but most of his shows are filled with covers from the Beatles, Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, The Doors and some “oldies,” too.

He has been on stage at Calamity Jane’s Bar & Restaurant in Sugar Grove, the Olde Tyme Inn in Sandwich, the American Legions in Plano and Yorkville and several other venues, too.

About two months ago, a new opportunity opened up for the Millington native.

In early June, Woodraska’s cousin told him about a talent contest he should get involved in.

So on June 8, Woodraska, under his stage name “Woody James,” auditioned for Suburban Chicago’s Got Talent, a competition co-sponsored by the Metropolis Performing Arts Centre in Arlington Heights, the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce, Schaumburg-based law firm Gardi & Haught LTD, Wintrust Community Banks, College Textbooks and the Daily Herald newspaper in Arlington Heights.

“I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s see what professionals have to say about me,’” Woodraska said.

Out of nearly 200 people, Woodraska made the first cut and was chosen to participate in the next round, the Top 20.

He sang the same song for both his audition and Top 20 performances, Johnny Cash’s Folsom Prison Blues. With just under 12,000 votes following the Top 20 performance, Woodraska won the Fan Favorite and earned a spot in the Top 10.

“I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I come from a place where there’s more corn than people.”

He sang a piece he wrote himself called “Leaving This Town” in the Top 10 competition last Sunday, July 22, and was expecting to find out if he made the Top 5 by Friday, July 27.

“We’re on pins and needles,” Woodraska’s mom, Judy, said Wednesday about the wait.

“Leaving This Town” is a Johnny Cash- and Hank Williams-inspired song written in about an hour, Woodraska said.

“I love the Beatles and Paramore, but I can’t sing like them,” he said. “God gave me a country voice.”

When he wrote “Leaving This Town,” Woodraska remembers thinking it had to be a song worth listening to and something that was easy to remember. He described it as a “witty way of saying I don’t care anymore.”

The entire experience, so far, has been unbelievable for Woodraska. He said he can’t sleep at night because it finally started sinking in that he is getting noticed.

“I’m actually doing it and people are reacting in a positive way,” he said.

The Top 5 contestants will perform Sunday, Aug. 5 and at the Taste of Arlington Heights Saturday, Aug. 11. The winner will be announced at the Taste, too, earning a paid trip to audition for NBC-TV’s “America’s Got Talent.”

“We’re praying he gets in the Top 5,” Judy said.

She said she is excited for the opportunity her son and the rest of the “talent in the area” has been given with this competition and is hopeful he gets a call.

If Woodraska receives a phone call about the Top 5, he made it. He will not get a call if he did not get into the Top 5.

Woodraksa said he doesn’t know what to think just yet. This was just something fun for him to do. He didn’t expect to make it this far.

“This is crazy,” he said. “I’m proud of myself. A year ago I was a housekeeper doing laundry and didn’t know what I wanted to do.”

To learn more about him, visit Woodraska on Facebook at “Woody James.” He will also be playing at the Last Chance Saloon in Millington this Sunday, July 29, from 1-3 p.m.

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