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‘You can’t outrun a mustang’: Gillette musician, singer claims top spots in country music competition

Local musician Shawn Keller hopes to take his dream of becoming a country music star to the next level after winning two international titles in Tennessee.

Shawn Keller poses on the back of pickup truck for his senior photo. (Jennifer Keller)

GILLETTE, Wyo. – A singer, songwriter, guitarist, and aspiring fiddler, Shawn Keller possesses a unique love for music and an unwavering drive to perform.

As far back as he can remember-and farther still with memories shared by his mother, Jennifer, of a 6-month-old boy singing along with a family band many years ago- music has always been there for him as an outlet on stressful days or a record of his fondest memories.

He never thought it would take him places; Shawn’s long adhered to a mental image of himself as an amateur performer from small-town Wyoming that nobody would ever know. 

But now, having recently secured two top-performer titles hard-won during the 2023 North American Country Music Association International competition in Tennessee, he’s starting to think a bit differently with interested parties reaching out to him from Michigan to Texas. 

“I’m realizing that there might actually be a shot for me to go somewhere with this and, I mean, if that’s what happens I’m all for it. I love to be up on stage and make people happy,” Shawn said, speaking of a life-long journey filled with ups and downs on the road to get where he is today. 

Early days

Since before he could walk, Shawn’s been involved in music in some way. When he was a baby, he would hang around while a multi-generational family band performed music and sing along as best he could, Jennifer said of her son. 

As he got older, he began plucking away at a guitar- one of which he crafted himself as a high-school project- and working on his voice. Jennifer would love being at home with him in the evenings listening to him play while she fixed dinner. 

Shawn Keller poses for a photo at the NACMAI competition in Tennessee. (Jennifer Keller)

In 6th grade, he took it upon himself to learn finger-style guitar playing, practicing for weeks on end before he performed a cover of Kansas’ “Dust in the Wind,” Shawn said, adding that his guitar skills continued to improve over time. 

When it came to his voice, Shawn considers himself self-taught, though he did sing in a choir occasionally and eventually began performing onstage with the Hunter Family Band alongside his family. 

He never thought much of it, but when on the day he entered a singing competition in Florida, everything began to change. 

“I’ve always been in the mindset that I’m a decent, amateur guitar player and that I might have a voice that I can sing back-up or something,” Shawn said. 

The judges agreed with him on the guitar playing, but when it came to his voice they immediately recognized his potential and said it could take him places. 

“It was a complete 180 from what I had thought and where I stood in the running, so that’s when I really started focusing on singing and pushing my voice to be new things,” Shawn said.

It was his voice that would really take him on to Tennessee. 

Big stage

Not everyone can claim to hold titles like “Entertainer of the Year” or “Best Male Vocalist,” but Shawn can. He won them both for his age group on the international stage during the 2023 NACMAI competition in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, a multi-day event comprised of competitors from across North America. 

Aside from family, four things accompanied him across state lines: his trusty Seagul brand guitar, a cover of Tyler Childress’s “Lady May,” and two original songs composed by Shawn himself titled “Mustang” and “Jebediah,” he said. 

The night of the competition, melodic guitar notes echoed from the stage as the room filled with Shawn’s deep voice singing of overcoming bad times, romance, and imaginative stories surrounding the origins of an old rifle from his childhood. 

Shawn Keller on stage in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, during the 2023 NACMAI competition. (Jennifer Keller)

Of his original songs, Shawn said that Mustang holds a special place in his heart; he wrote it about a time in his life when he surrounded himself with the wrong crowd and was making poor decisions. 

“I kind of see that it was the devil working on me, and it was kind of my inspiration song,” Shawn said, adding that the song speaks about outrunning the devil on the back of a mustang if he tried to take the reins again. 

Jebediah, he said, was written about a rifle that used to belong to a friend of his dad, who owned a house out in the country when they were children. The rifle was covered in blemishes, scars that fueled the imagination of the two boys who would create fantastical stories about where the gun had come from. 

Humble hopes

Jennifer is proud of how far Shawn’s come and says he’ll always have the support of his family wherever his future takes him. 

“It’s kind of hard not to be a proud parent, for sure,” she said. “I just love watching him follow his passion and he’s got a lot of drive with it.”

But for her, Jennifer feels that it is her son’s humility that sets him apart in the music world. 

“So, we’ve got to hold on to that because he’s not prideful and he’s not arrogant,” Jennifer said, adding that she knew she would have to be the one to reach out about Shawn because he wasn’t likely to do it, it’s not in his character. 

Next year, Shawn hopes to return to Tennessee to compete again and is considering advice from his close friends to record and put out a single. 

“We’re kind of playing it by ear because what I’m learning is that a lot of this isn’t so much a scheduled event as it is waiting for the public’s reaction and all that,” Shawn said, adding that there’s potential to go perform with groups in Michigan for a couple of gigs and a music festival in Missouri. 

In the meantime, he’s going to be looking for a job, having quit his previous employment at a coal mine, and generally plans to live his small-town life as usual while waiting to see how his music career plays out. 

“If it takes me to the next level and I end up being somebody that people recognize on the street, awesome, I’m all for it,” he said. “But if not, you know, I can live with that too.”