But hard work, dedication and support from those around him — and his faith in a higher power — have gotten him to a point in his life where things are pretty good these days.
Harris, who just turned 23 a couple weeks ago, has become somewhat of a local celebrity in the past two weeks thanks to his appearance on “American Idol,” one of TV’s most popular singing competitions.
Harris auditioned for ‘American Idol” during a bus stop tour in Tuscaloosa last summer. He got past that first hurdle and advanced to an on-screen audition in front of “Idol” judges Jennifer Lopez, Keith Urban and Harry Connick Jr. in Salt Lake City, Utah, that aired two weeks ago.
He wowed the judges with his rendition of “Soulshine” by The Allman Brothers Band to garner a ticket to Hollywood to compete alongside more than 200 others who advanced. Last week, he again impressed the judges with “Trouble” by Ray LaMontagne to move on while other contestants were eliminated.
“It’s been amazing,” Harris said Tuesday. “This journey has been great. I give it all to God, first of all. I have to because He’s brought me through so many things and so many obstacles in my life, and without Him I wouldn’t be here today.”
A health scare a couple years ago when Harris’ appendix ruptured almost took all that away from him.
“When my appendix ruptured they almost lost me,” he said, “but God said, ‘I ain’t gonna let that happen. I’ve got something later on for you in your life.’ I truly believe that.”
Harris said prior to his success on “American Idol,” he prayed for just a chance to show what he’s capable of doing.
“Before all this happened, at night I would sit back and dream about this and just ask the Lord to give me a break because I was working so hard,” Harris said. “I honestly said the same prayer every night asking to Lord to just let it happen and make a way for me. And He did and it seems like it came true for me overnight. It’s been unreal.”
The response Harris has received in the past two weeks has been unbelievable, he said, and perhaps a bit overwhelming.
“It’s been amazing to have everybody back home in Walker County support me like they have,” Harris said. “It really makes me feel good and it pumps me up even more when I go back and get the results of how I’m doing on the show.”
The support, he said, helps motivate him to do his best when he takes to the “Idol” stage.
“It gives me something to say, ‘Hey, C.J., let’s go out there and bring it back home,” he said. “It really means a lot to me to know so many people are supporting me.”
Harris said his grandfather, Robert McCollum, gave him his start in music, and the encouragement needed to practice to get better.
“My granddad gave me my first guitar and said, ‘C.J., no matter what you do with it, just go with it. You might be a musician, you might go to college and become a dentist. I’m giving you this guitar because I see your musical ability,’” Harris said.
“It was almost like I didn’t have a choice,” he added, “because it just came to me so naturally. I love music, and without God I wouldn’t be here because during all the hard work and everything, He was behind me and really helped me develop myself.”
Harris said the decision to audition for “American Idol” didn’t come easy. He had failed in auditions for other shows like “The Voice,” “The X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent” but that didn’t deter him from trying again.
“I seemed to fall short in those, and it really broke my heart,” he said, “but I told myself that that was in the past and I was just going to stay home and practice.”
But all that changed.
“Then, ‘American Idol’ came to Tuscaloosa and I said I was going to give it one more shot,” he said.
That led him to where he is today.
“When they told me ‘yes,’ it was like my whole life changed,” he said. “I felt like ‘Here’s my chance and all I have to do is show them what I can do. I just felt like back then (with the other auditions) I never got an opportunity to really show what I can do.’
“My life has changed so much for the better because of all this,” he added. “I’m like a totally different person now.”
And it’s given him a purpose in life.
“I have something to look forward to, something for my son to look forward to later on in life,” he said. “He can look back later on in life and see what his father has accomplished and be proud of me.”
Locally, a grassroots effort to support Harris has started.
Harris spent last week visiting area schools and businesses to express his appreciation for the love and support he’s received.
There’s also been sites on Facebook (The Music of C.J. Harris and #TeamCJHarris) and Twitter (@CJHarrisMusic) dedicated to supporting Harris.
“It’s all been amazing,” he said. “I never could have dreamed something like this could have happened to me.”