Aboard the Dixie Train

by Shawna Lewis


I called ahead. The hostess at Crow Creek Tavern said former American Idol contestant Matt Breitzke—the Oklahoman that Simon Cowell called “really really good”—would be performing at 8:30. “Maybe more like nine o’clock, but probably 8:30, if he’s set up by then.”

My husband and I arrive at 8:45. We see Breitzke immediately, set up with a gray-bearded accompanist on stage, but they’re not playing. In fact, he soon gets off stage and takes a smoke break. His accompanist yawns, takes off his guitar and sets it down—because nobody’s here.

We look around and count: seven at the bar. Three couples and a lone ranger. None of them seem interested. Besides those seven, there is a bartender, a waitress, and us, the only people at a table. Counting Breitzke and his sidekick, that makes 13 total in the room.

Breitzke starts reluctantly at 9:25. A rowdy little group of three have come in and seated themselves at a table, clearly there to cackle loudly at one another, not to watch Breitzke. But they’re polite when he starts speaking.

“Thanks for coming out, all five of you,” he says with a laugh. Though he seems a little disappointed with the turnout, he shrugs it off and starts to sing.

And he’s good.

Eyes closed and grinning, he sings with all the soul and power of the guy Paula Abdul said had “natural talent” and “a nice tone.”

He sits on a stool, sunglasses on his head, and plays a few familiar cover songs under the glow of neon beer signs. He sings with plenty of runs and riffs that make it tough to decipher many of the lyrics, but it’s a pleasant overall sound and he and his accompanist nod with enjoyment to each rhythm.

The characters at the bar flow in and out, varying in interest and never growing much in number. One guy calls out enthusiastically to Breitzke, who informs the rest of us, “that’s my biggest fan right there.”

Though online advertisements for tonight’s performance boasted of Breitzke’s “Ameri- can Idol” fame, he never mentions it from the stage or talks much about himself at all. He tries to engage with the few of us watching, asking questions like “How are you guys doing?” and “Did everybody get something to drink?”

The noisy table of three is still the only other party, and they’ve stopped listening. They yell and giggle to each other throughout the awkward silence that fills each pause between songs.

When he finally moves on to an original tune, a shier side of Breitzke emerges. His voice softens and the emotion shows through, especially during the money line, which he belts with feeling:

“This can’t be how it’s supposed to be.”

Born and raised in Hobart, Indiana, Matt Breitzke remembers a happy, musical up- bringing. He calls his brother one of his best friends, and says he got along with “every single clique in school.”

“I started singing for people around age five, and later played trumpet in the high school band,” he said. “Around 16, I picked up the guitar, but only as a means to do more singing on my own.”

He moved to Tulsa for flight school in 1999 and began playing at open mics and in bars. He says he didn’t start out as a great performer because “nobody does,” but even then, he had heart. It wasn’t long until he was getting paid gigs. Between the local music success and dating his future wife, life was good.

“I was visiting my hometown in Indiana and I happened to hang out with Shelly,” Breitzke said. “We fell in love. She decided to move to Tulsa and give our relationship a shot. At the time, it was great.”

They got married in 2002 and welcomed son Travis three years later. When Shelly sug- gested he audition for “American Idol,” her husband went to Kansas City to give it a shot. Breitzke says he signed a contract with the show that does not allow him to discuss the initial audition process, but whatever it was, he aced it and came face to face with the ce- lebrity judging panel: Simon Cowell, Paula Abdul, Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi. Bored and pretentious as ever, Cowell started the audition by asking why a welder from Oklahoma would want to be on “American Idol.”

“I knew what he was getting at,” Breitzke recalled. “When being a performer is your dream, welding is far from that. I guess he was just confused, but I told him that I was a father who needed to support my family, and he said he understood.”

He sang Bill Withers’ “Ain’t No Sunshine” and though Jackson didn’t think he was “right for this,” Abdul, DioGuardi, and Cowell disagreed, and sent Breitzke to Hollywood.

“I was floored,” Breitzke said. “I was not the typical contestant, and I was 28, which was the very top of the age limit.”

In Hollywood, Breitzke joined the other contestants in a rigorous schedule he describes as “jam packed and crazy.”

“We worked anywhere from 14-16 hours a day, traveling, vocal coaching, performance coaching, song selection, everything. Then eventually we filmed the show, which would take an entire evening and felt like ten minutes. It was a rollercoaster, but it was fun.”

Breitzke said the highlights included getting to work with people like famous pia- nist Michael Orland, and Dorian Holley, a vocal coach whose clients included Michael Jackson. He also cherishes a moment during a taping of the show, when Ryan Seacrest pulled Breitzke’s 3-year-old son Travis onstage to dance during a commercial break.But the rollercoaster spun out of control when Breitzke began to have dizzy spells and rapidly dropped weight. Soon he was unable to hold down anything, including water, and became so anemic that he ruptured a vocal cord.

In the meantime, a call from Indiana confirmed that Breitzke’s mother had stage-four cancer in her bladder that was progressing to her brain.

“It was the most intense time of my life. I was very close to my mother, a true momma’s boy. Between the health problems and my mother’s illness, I started to wonder if God was telling me to quit the show.”

In order to get through his performance, Breitzke took a cortisone shot just before go- ing on stage—something the on-site specialists discouraged.

“They said I could do permanent damage,” he remembered. “But I needed it. The way I saw it, this was a once in a lifetime opportunity, and I wasn’t willing to just give it up.”

* * *

Breitzke performed without increasing damage to his vocal cords, but was voted out of the competition that night. Out of the more than 100,000 people who had originally auditioned, he finished in the top 25.

“Paula and Simon were always talking about the ‘heart’ I put into my performance. I think they meant that I was offering something different, and they saw that I had passion. I’m proud of my experience on the show. Everybody thinks they tell the contestants exactly what to sing and how to sing it, but that’s not true. I feel like I got to represent myself well.”

Coming out of the show, Breitzke received a few offers to stay on television. The Discovery Channel made him an offer to be part of a car show they were developing (presum- ably to host it, though it was never made clear), and a hoard of studios wanted to hire him for session work. But they would all have to wait.

“My first priority was to get home and get well,” he said. “I was trying to stay active and positive, but I didn’t want to get out of bed.”

After getting some tests done at his doctor’s office in Oklahoma, Breitzke went to the pound with his wife and son to adopt a dog. They were interrupted by a call from the doc- tor, who told him to get in the car and drive straight to the hospital.

“He told me, ‘We have a bed waiting for you. You are in complete renal failure. You might not make it.’ ”

Breitzke’s kidneys had failed, and one had split. He quickly began dialysis treatment— a painful needle-sticking process he still endures three times every week, each treatment lasting four hours and fifteen minutes.

“It turned out that it was an absolute blessing to be voted off the show when I was. The doctor said I would only have had another day or two to live, had I not gotten treatment. I would be dead. I would have died on American Idol.”

A few months later, Breitzke’s mother passed away.

About a year after that, while still painfully waiting on a kidney transplant, he said, “I realized my wife had become unhappy.”

Though Breitzke clams up about the details of the separation, he says he and his wife are currently “almost completely divorced.”

“I can’t be totally done with her, because she’s the mother of my kid, and he’s everything to me,” he said. “He’s the reason I don’t regret getting married.”

At Crow Creek Tavern—a biker bar with designated “motorcycle parking” out front— Breitzke makes another attempt to connect with his audience:

“It’s a good night to be on two wheels,” he says.

Though it’s an hour into his set and obvious that his audience has maxed out, he continues to make comments like, “I’ll play a few more while we wait for everybody to get here.” But solo gigs are not his only project. Breitzke formed a bar band called Dixie Train, which he fronts on lead vocals and guitar. The band plays regularly at Rooster’s, Fishbonz, and The Fly Trap.

“Locally, I get noticed more for the band than I do for Idol, ” he said.

Breitzke is still waiting on a kidney transplant, but says he finds strength in staying focused on the music. Lucky for him, Dixie Train has gigs scheduled for every weekend over the next three months.

“The fact that I was on the show really does help us book some clubs. They like to advertise that.”

Breitzke says he misses being on screen, but enjoys his spot on stage. “The point of American Idol, for me, was never to be on television,” he said. “I wanted to be validated as a singer, and I feel like I was. I don’t feel any negativity about the show. Getting a taste of that fame, those crowds, working with famous people, that is an addictive taste. I want to get back there, and I think I will get back to professional singing, on some level, at some point. But in the meantime, I have to be content where I am.”

For now, that means Tulsa, where his solo show at Crow Creek Tavern may be tough, but it’s got that ambition, that heart, that same quality Cowell and Abdul were constantly pointing out on national television. While crowds are sometimes small and his life has gotten messy, he says he’d do it all over again “in a heartbeat.”

“I don’t mind small crowds. If there’s anybody listening, I’m playing for them, even if it’s just two people. Every show you do, you’re going to have some people talking and carrying on conversation, because that’s why they’re there. The people that want to connect, that’s who you give your attention to. And do your best to pull the rest in.”