Corey White

Corey White started playing the guitar when he was just 8 years old. “As soon as I learned my first three chords, I said, ‘OK, I’m ready to play a show!’ ” he remembers.

That kind of confidence would offer White the chance of a lifetime just a few years later when he joined his idol, Willie Nelson, onstage for an impromptu duet. (More on that later.)

The Bixby, Okla., native began to play in front of audiences when a local group called Mid Life Crisis let him entertain the crowds between its sets. Before long, White was asked to join other young artists in a western swing band called Oklahoma Stomp. He was only 11 at the time.

He honed his skill in the band, playing regularly at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa and touring the country.

“We played all over the U.S.,” White explains. “We opened for the Oak Ridge Boys in Kansas, played at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That was my start in music.”

Not that all of it was easy. “Everyone has to pay their dues,” White acknowledges, even for someone starting so early in life. “By being in Oklahoma Stomp, I was able to play tiny shows and work my way up.”

After five years with the group, White decided to branch out on his own. As a Christmas present, his mother arranged a meeting with country music manager, agent and impresario Jim Halsey. White spoke with Halsey for a while and impressed him enough to be offered an internship.

Halsey, whose career spans more than 60 years, has worked with many recording artists including Waylon Jennings, Reba McEntire, Clint Black, Tammy Wynette, Mel Tillis, Merle Haggard, Dwight Yoakum, the Judds and Lee Greenwood.

While interning for Halsey and his son Sherman, “I would play my music for them every chance I got,” White says. After several months, they decided to manage his career. “They [currently] only manage three acts,” White points out, “Roy Clark, the Oak Ridge Boys and myself.”

This has been a huge career boost for him. “Their endorsement automatically demands the respect of the music industry.They have incredible personal connections and were gracious enough to share those connections with me.”

A connection White made on his own was when he sang onstage with Willie Nelson. He got a ticket to the music legend’s show and made his way to the front row with a cardboard sign that read, “It’s my dream to play a song with you.” As White remembers, “I held it up for a good hour!”

Finally, Nelson leaned down and said, “What do you wanna play?”

“I said, ‘Milk Cow Blues,’ ” White recalls. “He said, ‘Come on up!’

“Afterwards, he signed a bandana, which I gave to my grandpa, the biggest Willie fan ever.”

Another unbelievable experience

White learned another side of the music industry as a broadcast sound engineering student at Tulsa Technology Center’s Riverside campus. He was introduced to SkillsUSA after hearing a former national officer, C.J. Wetzler, speak at the school’s kickoff event for career and technical student organizations.

“There were no competitions for our subject, so I was discouraged to join [at first],” White says. But Wetzler knew SkillsUSA offered other opportunities for students and convinced White to become a member anyway.

“C.J. is my mentor,” White now reflects. “He’s a huge advocate of SkillsUSA. He really encouraged me to join for the experience as well as the people!”

Wetzler suggested White represent his chapter and school as a performer during SkillsUSA’s National Leadership and Skills Conference. After submitting audition materials, White was selected to sing for the Advisor of the Year award segment of the Opening Ceremony. He describes the experience as “unbelievable!”

Now that he’s finished with high school — graduating early at 16 — White plans to spend the next couple of years focusing completely on his music career. Eventually, he plans to attend Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn.

White continues to strive for excellence. “Honestly, I believe performing is my trade,” he says. “I spend hours practicing my craft, trying to constantly improve.

“As far as leadership goes, I see music as a platform. Music gets me in front of huge audiences. It is what you do in front of those audiences that matters.”