Joan McLaughlin may never forget the night last summer when her daughter Audra, now 23, found out she would be a contestant on prime time's hit singing showcase The Voice (8 p.m. Monday and Tuesday on NBC10).
The family from Glenolden, Delaware County, was Down the Shore. "We were in Sea Isle City, and Audra had just won first place at Sea Isle's Got Talent, singing Faith Hill's 'Cry,' " recalls Joan, "when we got the call she was going to Hollywood. What a night!"
You could easily expand that sentiment to what a year!
Take Audra's televised blind audition in March when she received the show's highest compliment while belting out John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery": All four of the judges - Adam Levine, Blake Shelton, Shakira, and Usher - rotated their chairs, signaling they wanted to enlist her for their team.
McLaughlin's dynamic delivery aired on Today the next morning and was singled out in People magazine that week.
It was a surreal moment for a sweet, somewhat shy young woman without a great deal of performance experience.
"I was so nervous," she said on the phone from Los Angeles, where she was preparing for this week's live Top Ten programs. McLaughlin was planning to sing Reba McEntire's "You Lie" Monday night. Two contestants will be eliminated Tuesday night.
"When you walk out, it's completely silent," she said of her baptism by fire. "It was like a total out-of-body experience.
"I saw Adam's chair turn - but you don't hear it like you do on TV, and I tried to get back into the song and not be distracted. And then Blake turned and then Shakira and Usher, and I was dumbfounded. They were interested in working with me? I have all their songs on my iPod. Oh my gosh, I couldn't believe it!"
With the entire deck to choose from, McLaughlin picked the stylistically simpatico Shelton as her coach. "I went with Blake because I'm such a huge fan," she says. "I'm learning so much from working with him. He's the same way off camera as he is on. His compliments have really helped my confidence level."
Brace yourself for another one, Audra. Reached for comment about his Pennsylvania protégée, Shelton said, "Audra is one of my all-time favorite country singers," emphasizing he's referring not just to the annals of The Voice, but to the entire history of the genre. "Even though she is not even making an album yet, I'm excited to buy it when she does."
That's obviously an amazing endorsement. But how does a kid from the Philly suburbs acquire the soul of a coal miner's daughter?
No one really knows. McLaughlin grew up in a not particularly musical family, whose listening tastes ran to pop and R&B. Yet from the time she was young, everything Audra sang - and she was always singing - came out with a distinct twang.
She formed a little cowgirl club with a neighbor around the corner. "We'd listen to Shania Twain and Martina McBride and Faith Hill," McLaughlin said. "I loved all those singers. Martina and Reba were huge for me."
The music was solace for a chronically painful classroom experience.
"I struggled in school really bad," she says. "I had kind of a learning disability. I was separated into different classrooms. It was hard to make a lot of friends. I remember being in elementary school and wanting to fit in so bad."
"She would come home and be upset and cry," her mom recalls. "They wanted to put her on medication, and I don't believe in that. She's one of them kids that had to work harder and focus more. She ended up doing great."
McLaughlin graduated from Interboro High School in Prospect Park and was, until recently, studying to be a medical assistant at Delaware County Community College.
It was another school she enrolled in last spring - the Delco Let There Be Rock School in Folsom ("on MacDade Boulevard between Rita's and Nifty Fifty's," as its voicemail says) - that helped opportunity to knock.
Owner Melissa Daley, who is the head vocal and performance coach at Let There Be Rock, remembers when McLaughlin first came in with her father, Patrick.
"I had her get up and sing a song, and for a split second, it ran through my mind, 'What am I going to do for her? This kid is great,' " Daley says. "Then I realized she was kind of lost in her career. She had this beautiful strong voice, but it needed definition."
Daley gave her pointers on technique, but focused more on presentation, acting classes, and even media coaching to help get McLaughlin "industry ready."
When The Voice sent out fliers asking for videos of promising students, Daley and her husband, John, felt McLaughlin was ready.
So far, so great. Turns out talent and a fierce work ethic make a potent combination.
"This is way more intense than anyone realizes," says Daley, who talks to McLaughlin by phone almost every day. "It's like going to superstar boot camp. There's way more pressure than you realize.
"But Audra really has the constitution for it. She works hard, she's disciplined, and she does her research. In the first interviews she did for the show, she looks like a deer in the headlights. Now you see her on the red carpet talking, and she's adorable. She's come very far very fast."
All the contestants on The Voice are locked in a cage match with their nerves, but McLaughlin has things in good perspective. "I'm trying to stay grounded and calm," she says, "and have a good time."
It's her parents you feel sorry for. It seems they may expire at any minute from a combination of shock and pride.
"We've been watching The Voice and American Idol and all those shows for years," says Joan McLaughlin, "and now we look at each other, and we're like, 'Holy mackerel! She's Top Ten!'
"We've been pinching ourselves. This just doesn't happen to a small-town girl from Philly."
8 p.m. Tuesday