Vienna man wins international music competition

By Colin Willard, Staff Writer
Posted 5/10/23

VIENNA — In March, Owen Kloeppel, 20, of Vienna, traveled to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to compete in the North American Country Music Associations International’s (NACMAI) annual …

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Vienna man wins international music competition


VIENNA — In March, Owen Kloeppel, 20, of Vienna, traveled to Pigeon Forge, Tennessee, to compete in the North American Country Music Associations International’s (NACMAI) annual competition.

Despite some issues with the microphone, he won the two categories in which he competed: Traditional Country Male Vocalist and Traditional Country Entertainer for the 17 to 20 age group.

“When I first heard about the competition, I was a little surprised, but I was also a little excited,” Kloeppel said.

“I was very proud of him,” Kloeppel’s grandfather Sonny Helton said. “Grandma and Grandpa are always like that. This was an international competition.”

Performers traveled from around the United States and Canada to compete. Although Kloeppel is a lifelong Missourian, he competed while representing Indiana. Competitors need sponsorship from a NACMAI representative. Missouri does not have one, but Nancy Maiden, a friend of Kloeppel’s great-aunt Leona Williams, represents Indiana with NACMAI and she agreed to sponsor him. Maiden was the person who first contacted the family about entering Kloeppel into the competition.

NACMAI is an organization that, according to its website, works “to promote the development of the country and gospel music industry in each state and country” and “to promote and inform members of the industry and the public about resources available in the various states and countries for country and gospel music production.”

Its competition categories include New Country, Traditional Country, New Gospel, Bluegrass, Songwriters, Instrumentalist and Band and Duos and Groups.

Once Kloeppel had a sponsor, he had to submit an audition. He recorded two songs on a CD and sent it to the judges: “Don’t Close Your Eyes” by Keith Whitley and “Bandy the Rodeo Clown” by Moe Bandy.

A little while later, Kloeppel received mail informing him that the judges had chosen him as Indiana’s representative for the 17 to 20 age group in the Traditional Country Male category. Winning the state competition meant he had a ticket to compete at the international competition in Tennessee.

On March 16, Kloeppel and his family made the trip. Kloeppel sang four songs in the competition: “Don’t Close Your Eyes,” “Does Fort Worth Ever Cross Your Mind” by George Strait, “In Too Deep” recorded by George Strait, and “Texas Saturday Night,” written by Williams’ late husband Dave Kirby.

Kloeppel said both Whitely and Kirby are major influences on his music.

“I’ll tell you what,” Helton said while watching a video of Kloeppel’s performance. “I’ve been around country music my whole life, and that’s pretty dang good.”

“The more I play, the less my nerves bother me,” Kloeppel said. “That doesn’t mean I wasn’t nervous. They just affect me a little different. They really weren’t as bad as I was expecting.”

After the awards, a music producer approached Kloeppel and Helton. He asked Kloeppel what his plans were and if music would be a part of his future. Kloeppel told him that he did not want to make any decisions until after his graduation from State Technical College of Missouri this month. The producer told him to call once he graduated, and then he could connect Kloeppel with others who could potentially help him start a career in country music.

For now, Kloeppel plans to take things slowly and pursue music as a hobby.

“I’m hoping to play more shows and do more events now that I’m going to have more time, hopefully,” he said.

Kloeppel would not be the first in his family to pursue a career in country music. Williams had a career touring as a solo artist as well as a backing vocalist and bassist with Loretta Lynn’s band and Merle Haggard’s band The Strangers. The stretch of Highway 63 traveling north into Vienna is named in honor of her.

Even on a smaller scale, the family has always put an emphasis on music.

“Just about everyone in my family played the guitar,” Helton said. “My dad played the fiddle. My mom played music. She played the banjo a little bit and then the organ back when she was younger. My two brothers played the fiddle. You just played along with everybody. They’d all come to the house, and you just had to sit on the porch and play music, or you had to get your guitar out and play along with them… or try to.

“I helped get him started,” he said about Kloeppel. “In my music room, I have a mandolin, a fiddle, a little steel guitar, guitars (and) a bass. I have anything the kids want to play because my motto is that it’s a lot better to put a guitar pick in their hand than it is (a cell phone).”

Helton took Kloeppel to buy his first guitar.

“The salesman said ‘Watch this,’ and he grabbed one of those $2,500 guitars,” Helton said. “Owen said ‘It’s pretty good, but I like this one here better,’ an old $400 or $500 guitar. That’s what he bought.”

On Thursday nights, Helton and Kloeppel get together to eat dinner and play music. It has been their tradition for about the last six years. Kloeppel plays lead guitar and Helton joins him on bass or flat top guitar.

“I’ve always loved music,” Kloeppel said. “To say that I developed an interest wouldn’t be right. I started digging deeper into music when I was 14, and it’s slowly developed from there.”

“When you play music like that, you have to have the want to,” Helton said. “If you don’t want to, or you’re not interested in it, then you’re not going to follow through with it.”

Because Missouri does not have a representative with NACMAI, Helton decided he would take up the role. He received a packet in the mail to help him get started. Once he gets set up, he plans to find country and bluegrass talent from around the state. He hopes to have it established within the next couple of months.

“Hopefully I’ll get to go and hear some younger music,” he said. “I’m going to give it a whirl and see what happens.”