MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Celebrity judges unanimously assured a Middle Tennessee State University music business graduate that her career will “be forever” after she earned the runner-up spot in the “American Idol” finale Sunday, May 22.
Hunter Wolkonowski of Winchester, Tennessee, who performs under her stage name “HunterGirl,” joyously completed her nearly 10-month journey on the ABC reality show in a live three-hour finale as one of three finalists.
Audience voters eliminated fellow artist Leah Marlene Grehan about two hours into the show, leaving Wolkonowski and Noah Thompson of Louisa, Kentucky, to sing for the title. Supporters rushed to cast nearly 16 million more votes in the last hour, ultimately giving Thompson the “American Idol” $250,000 prize and a recording contract.
“You’re not a star, you’re a supernova. … ‘American Idol’ ends tonight, but your career is gonna be forever,” musician and celebrity judge Katy Perry told Wolkonowski, 23. “You have your wings.”
“I was so excited for what I was hearing (at her August 2021 audition) because your future flashed in front of my eyes right then, and here you are now,” musician and fellow judge Luke Bryan added. “Good luck with everything; I have no doubt you’re gonna go so far.”
“You now own the stage; you now are responsible for your career, and my dear, you have a career,” music legend and fellow judge Lionel Richie said emphatically.
“It is very apparent to all of us that your star is shining so bright. … Your heart is in the right place. May you thrive as long as possible.”
Wolkonowski, who reprised her audition song, Rascal Flatts’ “Riot,” Sunday night in her final “American Idol” performance, also premiered her own heartfelt song “Red Bird,” evoking tears, cheers and a standing ovation from judges, her family and the studio audience.
“Thank you guys. I love y’all. Thanks for believing in me,” she said, later adding, “I think I’ve grown more this year than I ever have in my entire life.”
She noted in an Instagram post after the show that she feels “blessed that I got to have this crazy experience with people that I love and care about. … I am so excited for the future.”
The May 2020 Department of Recording Industry graduate, who’s been writing songs since childhood and performing publicly since age 14, worked in Nashville writing songs and singing in clubs while earning her MTSU degree.
Wolkonowski also continues working closely with veterans’ groups, including Freedom Sings USA and Operation Song, on music therapy for former service members. Currently a staff writer for Freedom Sings’ Chattanooga offices, she’s the founding songwriter for the organization’s all-female veterans songwriting class.
She released her first single, “We’re Not in Kansas Anymore,” in 2018; her new five-song EP, “One Day,” which includes “Red Bird,” was released in March.
“American Idol” producers arranged a daylong homecoming event for Wolkonowski on May 17, allowing the people of Winchester and Franklin County to show their appreciation for her with a formal welcome and key to the city, a parade and an evening concert on the shores of Tims Ford Lake.
Top MTSU music-show finisher so far
MTSU students and alumni have been a consistent force in network TV music competitions, including “American Idol” and “The Voice,” since the shows began more than 20 years ago.
Wolkonowski is the most successful “American Idol” competitor so far with her No. 2 finish. Former MTSU student Colton Dixon of Murfreesboro finished seventh in the show’s 11th season in 2012, and MTSU advertising/public relations grad Ben Briley of Gallatin, Tennessee, made it to the top 11 on “American Idol” in 2014.
The students, alumni and faculty of MTSU’s Department of Recording Industry also are consistently recognized by their peers with awards and inclusion on best-of lists. The department has been part of Billboard’s lists of best music business schools since 2013, earning steady praise as a top producer of ready-to-work music pros.
Part of the university’s College of Media and Entertainment, the department offers students three areas of focus for their education.
The Commercial Songwriting Program trains song creators and performers. The Audio Production Program educates students in recording live music and audio for myriad entertainment and other uses. And future music entrepreneurs, including managers and publishers, can learn the industry’s intricacies in its Music Business Program.
The department opened its newly revamped and relocated Studios D and E last fall, giving students nearly 5,000 square feet and $2 million worth of customized, expandable, “world-class” space at 1408 E. Main. The department’s new Commercial Songwriting Center, located five blocks east of campus in the Miller Education Center at 508 E. Bell St., plans a spring 2023 grand opening.
The department was founded in 1973, opened its first campus recording studio in 1980 and was the first program in the country to release a fully student-created CD in 1985. It also collaborates with MTSU’s School of Music on a “music industry” minor for students in music-industry entrepreneurship or recording industry.
NBC News began calling MTSU a “Grammy-winner factory” in 2019 in the wake of alumni, students’ and staffers’ multiple nominations and wins from the industry’s top honor.
MTSU alumni, former or current students, and faculty from across the university have been a part of more than 134 Grammy Award nominations in the last two decades. The number of MTSU-connected Grammy winners since 2001 currently stands at 15 with a total of 37 Grammys, including nine repeat recipients, in categories from classical to pop to rock to country to gospel.
To learn more about Wolkonowski and her music, visit her website at https://huntergirlsmusic.com.
To learn more about the Department of Recording Industry at MTSU and its programs, visit https://mtsu.edu/recording-industry. For more information on the College of Media and Entertainment and its programs, visit https://www.mtsu.edu/media.