Growing up in the Triad, Mason Via and Presley Barker were familiar with the careers of each other as fellow musicians and singer/songwriters but had never met until they auditioned in California for the latest season of “American Idol.”
They are among hopefuls from across the country vying for golden tickets to Hollywood on the show.
Although he grew up in Danbury, Via (pronounced Vi), 23, now lives in Winston-Salem. Barker, 16, a native of Traphill, is a 10th-grader at East Wilkes High School.
“He’s a great guy,” Barker said of Via. “He’s really talented.”
Via said he is a fan of Barker’s guitar playing.
“I’ve seen him play for a couple of years now,” Via said. “It was real cool to get to meet him out there.”
This season’s auditions for “American Idol” were a bit different from last season’s when people auditioned from home because of the pandemic.
“After unexpectedly and successfully pivoting last season during the pandemic to “Idol At Home,” this season has been a refreshing return to normalcy, while taking what we learned from the pandemic, as we embrace what this show is about — helping young artists achieve an incredible dream, even in the most precarious of circumstances,” Megan Michaels Wolflick, executive producer of “American Idol,” said in an email.
“For example, this season, we were able to traverse the country digitally, allowing us to hold auditions in all 50 states, giving us an authentic variety of talented contestants from all over the country. ‘Idol Across America’ virtual auditions turned out to be a game-changer for us this season. ‘American Idol’ has always been a sign of the times, and we continue to strive in breaking new barriers, even in 2021.”
The judge auditions were held in fall 2020 in three cities in California — Los Angeles, Ojai and San Diego.
Both Via, who goes by the stage name Mason Picks on “American Idol,” and Barker have played at venues in Winston-Salem and have been favorites at Muddy Creek Café and Music Hall Sparta since the venue’s early days in Bethania.
“I loved playing there at Muddy Creek,” Barker said. “There are some great folks down there. I also got to open up for Marty Stuart at The Ramkat in Winston. That was truly an honor for me to get to do.”
Via has also performed at the former Ziggy’s in Winston-Salem and currently hosts a “BrewGrass Jam” on Mondays at The Brewer’s Kettle in Kernersville. His style of music is grass-icana.
Via was one of the winners of FloydFest in 2019 and is a three-time winner of the Shakori Hills Grassroots Festival competition.
He has released four albums and two EPs over the past six years and two singles within the past five months, including his most recent single, “The Flood.” He plans to release a new album called “Poverty Line” this summer.
“It’s about being broke,” Via said laughing.
He has been playing guitar since he was 10, and also plays mandolin and bass. He grew up going to fiddler’s conventions and music festivals around North Carolina and Virginia.
He is the son of David Via, an award-winning bluegrass songwriter of Critz, Va., and Cynthia Mabe of Danbury.
“They’re watching (‘American Idol’),” he said.
Via was shown briefly in a recent airing of “American Idol” while he was in the waiting area and reacting to Anthony Guzman, who dressed up as a Viking for his audition.
“That guy is really cool,” Via said. “He’s my buddy. My other buddy is Chayce Beckman ... Those were my best buddies out in Ojai. We had a great time.”
Guzman and Beckman, whose auditions have aired, earned golden tickets.
Barker, who grew up listening to the legendary guitarist and folk singer Doc Watson on the radio, began playing guitar when he was 7.
“I would say that’s one of my primary guitar influences because all my guitar teachers really taught me the songs he played when I first started out learning,” Barker said of Watson.
Now a teenager, he has been described as a young guitar phenom and one of the finest pickers from North Carolina since Watson.
“I primarily play the guitar, but I play a little piano,” Barker said.
He has won a number of guitar competitions, including the prestigious Wayne C. Henderson Guitar Championship.
Barker performed with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder at the Grand Ole Opry in 2018, as well as on “Little Big Shots,” a TV talent show for kids, as a member of The Salty Dogs in 2017. He has also performed at festivals such as MerleFest.
Barker has been singing country music for the past few years. At the age of 10, he released his first album, “Just 10,” which was mainly guitar-playing. He recently released a single called “Middle of Somewhere.”
“I definitely want to be a performer and sing for people,” Barker said.
His parents are Eric and Julie Barker of Traphill.
“All my family ... are real supportive of what I do,” he said.
Meeting the judges
“American Idol” representatives reached out to Via and Mason on Instagram about auditioning for the TV show. Then the singer/songwriters got to audition for the show’s executive producers via Zoom before moving on to perform for judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie in Ojai, Calif.
Barker said he hadn’t been able to do performances at venues because of the pandemic and had been working on his music at home when he was contacted.
“I went through the audition process, and I ended up getting to sing for the celebrity judges,” he said. “That was a super cool experience for me. I have always been a fan of the show. My whole family has always watched it.”
He said he has wanted to try competing on a show like “American Idol” for a long time.
“I jumped at the chance” he said. “I wasn’t really doing anything else.”
He said that being in the audition room and getting to talk to celebrities he has watched on TV for a long time was an amazing and unreal experience.
“It felt like a total dream to me,” Barker said.
He said he was a little bit nervous.
“Going in there in front of like three giants of music was pretty intimidating, for sure,” Barker said. “As soon as I got in there, I’ll tell you, my throat was dry as a piece of cotton.”
He said not many people get to sing before the judges and he is thankful for that opportunity.
“I appreciate all the folks that helped me get there,” he said.
Before the pandemic, Via lived for four months in Nashville, Tenn., then moved back to North Carolina as performance venues went into shutdown.
Initially, Via didn’t know what to think when he heard from someone from “American Idol” and wondered if it might be a scam.
“I’d posted a picture just like I would normally do on Instagram of me with a guitar, and I got a message or comment from someone saying, ‘Would you ever consider being on ‘American Idol’?”
Turns out the inquiry was real, and he decided to audition.
He spoke of remembering bright lights shining on him when he went before the celebrity judges.
“You’re like, ‘Oh, snap, I’m here with Ryan Seacrest and I’m just meeting the judges,” he said. “It is really intimidating. Some people probably are better with this than I am, but I get, like, starstruck. You go in there and these people you’ve looked up to your whole life are talking to you like they’ve known you for a while.”
Via and Barker can’t give details about how their auditions went, meaning if they got a golden ticket.
So far, there is no air date for their auditions, but they are hoping to see them.
“If nothing else, I got to meet these famous people and got to perform in front of them,” Via said. “Without going into detail about what happens and all that stuff, that itself was like a bucket list kind of thing.”