FORSYTH, Ill. | Jesse Hite isn't getting cards and letters from people he doesn't even know; at least, not yet.
But he does get regular emails, and many of them say very nice things about his unusual yearlong YouTube song odyssey.
"Ohmygod, I am in love with you. Seriously, you are (naughty procreation word) amazing. Especially since you covered this and just ohgoodness. This is perfect," gushed one fan after hearing his cover of "Where Will We Go" by IAMDYNAMITE alternative rock duo Christopher Martin and Chris Phillips. And the duo themselves liked Hite's version of their song so much they posted it on their website and invited him on stage at a recent concert in St. Louis.
So how does a nice boy from Forsyth wind up agreeing to video himself singing a different song a day for a year and posting them on YouTube? Because his folks asked him to, that's why.
"He came home from college on break and was kind of bored last summer and he needed to keep his voice up," recalls his mom, Brenda Hite. "His dad, Dana, and I both kind of challenged him and said, 'Why don't you try learning a new song every day for 365 days?' He didn't seem to think it was a big deal and just started doing it."
That was back in June. Each song he recorded was posted on YouTube, and he's now up in the 290s with a finish date set for the end of May. His personal repertoire of songs, plus some compositions of his own, was burned through after about 60 numbers, and then it was on to requests by friends, family and strangers.
Hite is no rhinestone cowboy, but his repertoire has ranged all over country, pop, rock and ballads and just about anything else you can think of. How about from "Sexy and I Know It" by LMFAO to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama" to "Stand By Me" from Ben E. King to Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror" for sheer breadth?
Hite usually appears by himself, strumming acoustic guitar, but he's also played banjo and piano and harmonica. And he's occasionally accompanied by guests, ranging from his 10-year-old nephew, Seth Davis, to his former teacher, Maroa-Forsyth High School choral director Christopher Weisenborn, who played piano on "Bridge Over Troubled Water."
"I enjoy singing the songs at the weekend, but weekdays can be kind of a chore, because I've got class every day and then I have to come home, eat dinner, and then get to the song," explains Hite, 21. But with a career goal of performing on a professional basis, the YouTube exposure he's earning by his extraordinary 12-month performance sounds like the gain will be worth the pain.
His mom says her son would be out "living in a van" and trying to make his music dreams come true today if his family hadn't insisted he arm himself with a degree before confronting the cold, hard world. Now in his junior year at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, Hite is studying business and marketing. "And I am studying marketing to hopefully end up marketing myself some day," he says.
Playing since he was 14, he's done various local gigs, and his voice can be bent to any style. Many YouTube admirers also are impressed with his guitar work and send him emails asking him to "post the chords" so they can copy what he does. Hite politely replies that won't be possible because, well, he doesn't read music. Everything he plays he plays by ear, his brain able to break down songs that flow into his head and then back via his fingers, which find their way to the right chords on the guitar.
"And it's getting easier to do it because I've had to listen to so much," says Hite of his YouTube adventure. "Sometimes, I only have to listen to a song once to get it."
But while the mechanics of playing is easy for the musician for all seasons, the emotional heavy lifting behind the lyrics can be hard work. His YouTube odyssey has touched on different areas of his private life and none more poignant than the close relationship with his grandparents, Carol and Jesse Hite, from Macon. In August, he posted a video of himself singing Elvis Presley's "That's All Right (Mama)" while sitting on a couch between his grandfather and grandmother, a major fan of the King.
And then, in a darkened room on Feb. 26, he posted a new video of him covering "Angel" by Sarah McLachlan. Before he plays, Hite tells the camera: "Today's song of the day is dedicated to a wonderful woman who left this world too early today."
It turns out that Feb. 26 was the day that Carol Hite, ill with cancer, had died.
Her grandson, as usual, sung his heart out for her.