Taste of Talent starts Wednesday

Staff writer

The annual Taste of Talent vocal competition will kick off its eighth year of showcasing local music talent in Franklin starting on Wednesday.

Competitions will occur at 7 p.m. Wednesdays from June 28 to July 26 in Bandstand Park. The semi-finals will be held at 7 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 5, and the finals will be held at 4 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 6, in the park.

“It’s the most popular event of the summer,” Franklin events coordinator Ronnie Beith said. “We’ve been blessed with so much talent, so it’s always a good show.”

Food vendors set up shop in the park each week and serve sweets, ice cream, pizza, fruit and other foods to an audience of about 800 to 1,400 people who gather for the competition, according to Beith.

The judges for this year’s competition are Tammi Dahl and Nathaniel Licht. The winner of Taste of Talent receives $1,000 cash donated by Lamb and Webster and three runner-ups each receive $100 cash and a $100 Franklin retail gift certificate donated by the Franklin Retail Association and Nancy and Jake Lindsey, Beith said.

Contestants in this year’s Taste of Talent competition include Ashleigh Bennett of Franklin, Shannon Birsa of Oil City, Tyler Carson of Rocky Grove, Hagan Cook of Rocky Grove, Kiara Gabler of Leeper, Joseph Lillard of Oil City, Mitch Littler of Oil City, Nicole McCann of Titusville, Chris Miller of Meadville, Cassy Powley of Springdale, Lauren Skelley of Shippenville and Joni Zacherl of Clarion.

Half of the contestants in this year’s Taste of Talent have participated in the competition before, while the other half are entering this year for the first time, Beith said, adding that all of the competitors “look and sound very promising.”

She said the selection process for contestants is similar to “The Voice”: candidates record a demo that is submitted to a committee, then the committee gives each submission a number ranking and the 12 submissions with the highest numbers are selected to compete.

The committee doesn’t know who they’re voting for since they can’t see the contestants and submissions are recorded in advance, Beith said.

“We’ve had past winners that have become major performers in the Pittsburgh area and one who’s recorded records,” Beith said, saying the competition is a way contestants can get their names out in the music industry. “We’re a performing arts community and there’s a lot of local communities that hire them for local events and festivals.”

Taste of Talent contestants

The Franklin vocal competition will showcase local singers. (Submitted photos)

The Franklin vocal competition will showcase local singers. (Submitted photos)

Here are the contestants for this year’s Taste of Talent competition:

Ashleigh Bennett, of Franklin, has been singing since she could talk. She grew up singing in church, participated in choir throughout school, and toured the East coast/Midwest with a band in college. Additionally, she plays piano, guitar, and ukulele and has been songwriting since the age of 13. Ashleigh moved to Franklin just under a year ago and has been overwhelmed by the opportunities the town has afforded her in her musical development, including coffee shop performances, singing at local restaurants and being included in various downtown events. She wants to thank the town for the chance to participate in Taste of Talent, and looks forward to meeting everyone there.

Shannon Birsa, 16, is a junior at Rocky Grove High School. She lives in Oil City with her family. She said loves music and has been singing for six years and loves performing. Birsa said she wanted to thank everyone for supporting her.

Tyler Carson, 18, is a 2017 graduate of Rocky Grove High School. He said he loves music and participated in all available bands and choirs including PMEA District and Regional bands and choirs. He also participates in the school theater program and the Barrow Civic Theatre including lead role as well as several supporting roles. He has participated in Franklin’s Taste of Talent Vocal Competition in the 2015 and 2016 seasons, placing as a finals runner-up both years. He took second in the Barrow Civic Theatre’s Celebration of Talent Competition earlier this year. Carson started in music at age 11 and now plays a total of 11 instruments. Carson’s duet partner is Kaylene Dunkle as Air Mosaics. This fall he will be attending Duquesne University and majoring in music technology.

Hagan Cook, 18, recently graduated from Rocky Grove High School. He said he plans are to attend Geneva College in Pittsburgh where he has signed to play football for the Golden Tornados and pursue a degree in electrical engineering. Cook sang in choir through high school with a few special choirs in talent shows. He has also performed in many shows with his older brother for the past 6 years in churches, competitions, concerts in the park, the Barrow-Civic Theater, benefits, parties and other venues on his own and as a duet. Cook has had the opportunity to do shows in Pennsylvania, Ohio and Nashville.

Kiara Gabler, 16, lives in Leeper and is enrolled in cyber school in the Commonwealth Charter Academy. She performs at the MACA building in Marienville the second Friday of every month and the lighthouse in Tionesta every fourth Friday. Gabler has sung at the July 4th Festival and will do so again this year. She has sang and played guitar, mostly country, since she was 14, and she also writes music. Gabler will soon be an RA and is stuck choosing between the fields of education, criminology, and health. She said she has a large amount of hobbies, such as drawing, painting, writing, hunting and hiking.

Mitch Littler, also known as “The Man In The Red Jacket,” is an Oil City native who has traveled far and wide to get crowds grooving with his original take on Delta and Hill Country Blues. His guitar, harmonica, and unique platform drum get fans tapping their toes and wanting more from Red Jack Blues. He said his motto is “Keep it groovin’, I do it for the fans.”

Joseph Lillard of Oil City said he started singing as a form of stress relief when he hurt his knee. He has been involved with the YWCA Summer Playground and has been a volunteer at Immaculate Conception parish. This is his fourth year participating in the Taste of Talent contest. During his first year, he made it to the semifinals, which were three days after his knee surgery. Lillard sang that round from a lawn chair.

Chris Miller, 31, was born and still lives in Meadville where he currently works in the office of Vogt Heating and Cooling. He attended Calvary Baptist Christian Academy and also graduated from Grove City College with a degree in marketing management. Miller has been heavily involved with music from a young age, participating in both choir and orchestra in high school and is the worship leader at Calvary Baptist Church in Meadville. Since 2011, he has performed and recorded with local music group, Shadow of the Statue.

Nicole McCann, of Titusville, can trace her background in music to when she was young and sang “Jesus Take the Wheel” at a wedding reception in karaoke. She has never taken singing lessons but she has had guitar lessons. This will be her fourth round of Taste of Talent.

Cassy Powley will compete in her fourth year in the Taste of Talent competition. She has been singing in public for seven years and plays eight instruments. She has been to county, district and region choir. She has a country band called CP and the Leftovers.

Lauren Skelley, 24, is from Shippenville. She graduated from Clarion Area High School in 2011 and graduated from Clarion University in 2015, majoring in liberal studies with a concentration in communication and a minor in theatre. She currently works in Direct Care with Passavant Memorial Homes. She was in the show choir in high school called the Clarion Singers and participated in the Pennsylvania Music Educators Association’s (PMEA) Districts, Regionals, All-States, and All-Eastern Festivals. Skelley also participated in many musicals in high school and college. Currently, she sing in weddings, the Clarion County Community Choir, and occasionally performs at the Barrow Civic Theatre during Caberet Nights. She said she is very much looking forward to performing with all of the other talented artists in this competition.

Joni Zacherl, 17, lives in Clarion and will be a senior at Clarion-Limestone High School this fall. She was a runner-up in last year’s Taste of Talent competition and was this year’s winner of Franklin’s Celebration of Talent competition. In addition to performing in the Sensations show choir, she also plays piano, ukulele, and is a percussionist in the marching band.