FRENCH SETTLEMENT — As a child, Laine Hardy loved to run around barefoot.
His mom would make him put on shoes before he left for guitar lessons, but he would take them right back off again once he was in the lesson room at the guitar shop. And sometimes he'd forget to put them back on when he left.
"When he got home, I'd get a call from his mom who said, 'Did he leave his shoes again?'" his childhood guitar teacher Jody Mayeux recalled last week.
If there was any doubt the teen had moved beyond the small village of French Settlement, it was dispelled in the back-and-forth between Hardy and "American Idol" host Ryan Seacrest last week. That's when the rural teenage who liked to go barefoot was asked about a pair of $4,000, diamond-studded shoes provided for him to wear during one of his performances on the show.
Louisiana finally has its idol.
The 18-year-old country boy has ascended from the swamps outside French Settlement to the top three finalists in ABC's reality contest show. On Sunday night, he'll sing for a chance to win a recording contract and the title of "American Idol."
The transformation for the four-wheel driving, bass fishing teen to an Elvis-like rock star on a national stage has been nothing short of astonishing. And he’s brought unprecedented attention to the small community of French Settlement, where he grew up in southern Livingston Parish.
French Settlement is an old village and a small one. The town sits atop a natural ridge in the swamps and was settled at the turn of the 19th century for its location along the Amite River.
Today, many residents commute to the River Parishes for work in the petrochemical plants along the Mississippi River. It's not uncommon for families — like Hardy's — to live on family plots, where cousins reside on adjacent lots.
When Gov. John Bel Edwards pulled aside a white cloth from a poster staged outside the Governor's Mansion on Tuesday morning, "American Idol" …
Laine grew up in a brick ranch-style house on 17 acres just outside French Settlement. His mom, Cindy, is a real estate agent and co-owns plumbing and contractor businesses with his father, Barry.
Like many kids raised in that area, he grew up "mud riding" — driving four-wheelers through the swamps until you're covered to your neck in dirt — swimming and skiing in the backyard pond and fishing at Pete's Landing on Bayou Barbary a few miles away.
Outside his parents' house sits a sturdy tree from which hangs an aging rope, left over from when Laine and his best friend would race across the outdoor trampoline, swing around the tree and land back on their feet.
Laine picked up guitar as a youngster with one purchased from a Walmart store. After he played a bit at home, they agreed when he was 8 years old to bring him for lessons in Walker, about 20 miles north.
He was a natural, the kind of kid who didn't need to set aside 30 minutes to practice, but who would practice in intervals between school and running out back.
"Usually, whenever I'd come over he'd come outside with me, but whenever I'd get there, he'd be on his guitar," said Micah Gill, a close childhood friend.
He loved it enough to squirrel away all his gift money for a couple years — some $1,300 — to buy a G&L Legacy sunburst electric guitar. As a youngster, he also adored Elvis Presley, even dressing up as him.
"Laine was into Southern rock, country and classic rock and roll," Mayeux said. "The more I threw at him, the more he learned."
Livingston Parish native Laine Hardy has a shot at being the next "American Idol" when he competes in the season finale of the popular TV sing…
'I don't sing'
By age 14, Laine was already packing local bars and restaurants, like Crazy Dave's in Livingston and Sarita's in Maurepas, when he played in a family band known as The Band Hardy.
His 27-year-old brother Kyle was the main singer in the country and swamp pop cover band, and Laine played lead guitar. But Laine tended to hang back.
"You had to push him to stand in the open, to get him out from behind the speakers," his brother said.
And when he tried out for — and was accepted to — the Talented Music program during his 9th grade year at 400-student French Settlement High School, he made sure the teacher knew his limits.
"He said, 'I don't sing,'" Tim Richardson, the talented music instructor, recalled.
Accounts differ slightly on how Hardy began to sing, although it was not until three to four years ago. Richardson said he first heard Laine sing after he pressed him to try out for a rendition of "High School Musical" put on by the talented music, theater and visual arts program at the southern Livingston schools.
He was good. Really good.
But the teen was shy. And even when Richardson called home to his mom, it was another two weeks before he agreed to sing in front of her.
He never agreed to do the musical.
Hair, teeth and a suit
But his brother told him to take his four-wheeler into the woods behind the house where no one could hear him. There Laine sang, recorded, listened and returned to do it all over again until he improved.
Producers from "American Idol" finally found Laine on YouTube and asked if he would try out for the 2018 season of "American Idol," his mom said.
But he was eliminated during the early episodes, and as he flew home from Los Angeles, he was silent and somber.
"I knew he was hurt," his mom said. "But I didn't want him to give up."
In this corner, hailing from Livingston, Louisiana, population 1,899, the bayou boy, Laine Hardy.
And he didn't. The quick stint on the TV show had already given him a measure of publicity. People wanted to hear Laine Hardy, and The Band Hardy play at venues throughout the South.
"Last year, when I was on the show, I went into it not knowing anything about music. I could barely sing. But after I got eliminated I got home and started playing everywhere," Laine said in a brief interview last week.
"The more he did it, the more comfortable he got," his mom said.
He was working on making his own career — playing venues like the Texas Club and Country Smooth Festival in New Orleans — when Ashton Gill, the sister of his friend, Micah Gill, invited him to Idaho to play guitar while she auditioned for "American Idol."
The judges, thrilled to see him again, invited Laine to re-audition, handing him a second golden ticket after hearing his rendition of "The Weight."
This time around, he was a new artist. Not only had he worked on his voice, his confidence and appearance were up, too.
Laine had said goodbye to the boyish swoop that covered his forehead during the first season. And he'd gotten some cosmetic dentistry to correct the teeth he damaged in a dirt bike accident as a child.
But perhaps the biggest aesthetic change for Laine was the suits. Now his trademark style on the show, his mom said she was surprised at first when he asked for a suit and even tried to talk him out of it, advising him to dress his age.
"I think inside, I think that suit, he feels like he's putting on this armor … like he's a different person," his mom said.
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A new future
The new look, the screaming fans and the half-million followers on Instagram haven't fundamentally changed the kid they love, friends and family said.
He's still shy. He still loves to hunt and fish. He's not grown accustomed to Los Angeles, where he's lived for weeks while filming the show.
And he's not totally adapted to the celebrity life, either. When Laine came home last week to great fanfare — a meeting with the governor, a 10,000-fan concert and a day dedicated in his honor — he broke down and cried during a family meal at his childhood home.
"It was heartbreaking for me. I didn't realize how hard it was for him," his mom said.
Friends and family hope Laine's roots in rural French Settlement will carry him through the overnight fame.
"You're taking a normal person and turning him into an automatic celebrity," Kyle said. "I think Laine can handle himself, I definitely believe he can. He has the moral values he needs, a good family that's raised him, a good conscience and a good head on his shoulders. That's something you can't buy with money."
Editors note: This story has been updated to correct the time when Laine cried during his visit home. The emotional moment came during a meal with his family.