Not that the show's millions of viewers could ever imagine Gracin as anything other than down-to-earth—American Idol's American patriot. He'd been in the service two years when he tried out for the show in November 2002, and even though the U.S. launched the Iraqi war in March 2003, Headquarters gave him the go-ahead to keep singing when he made the finals. "The Marine Corps made the commitment to me," he says. "They knew it would be good publicity." Still is; just ask him about the war. "I wish the media would start talking about all the good things happening over there," he says. "Schools coming back up, people getting drinkable water, women in schools. These guys didn't die in vain." And he'll continue to pay tribute to them: "I plan on doing USO tours, whatever I can to give back."
Nowadays he has a civilian fan base too. "People who remember Josh from American Idol want to see him succeed," says host Ryan Seacrest. "Josh, when he stays in that country genre, excels because he has the self-confidence. He knows that's what he's meant to do."
But Gracin wasn't born with a country twang. He grew up in suburban Michigan with his parents, Mario, an auto supply inspector, and Brenda, a former newspaper editor, and four sisters. "That helped me become a good listener," he says. What caught his ear at age 14 was Garth Brooks. For his eighth-grade talent show, he sang the country star's "Standing Outside the Fire." "After the reaction I got from the crowd," he says, "I knew right then and there I wanted to sing country music." One classmate who took notice was his future wife, Ann Marie, 24. But they didn't start dating until 1997, their junior year of high school. "She was failing miserably in history," Gracin recalls with a smile, "and I was one of the good students in class, so I tutored her and that's where it all started."
It almost ended two years later, when he was off at Western Michigan University to study music but, he admits, decided to slack off: "You think you could just sit in your dorm room all day, right? I thought things should be handed to me." His lack of direction bothered Ann Marie so much that she warned him, "If you want to end up getting married and having a family, you can't be irresponsible like this." He wised up. Dropping out after a year, he joined the Marines "to give me the foundation I needed." He and Ann Marie married in 2001, right after he finished boot camp. (Daughter Briana was born in 2002.) Gracin's military service "was for the best," says his wife. "He's grown into a good man."
However, Marine discipline was suspended after he auditioned for Idol, at Ann Marie's urging, and wound up living in an L.A. mansion with the other finalists. With no regular hours and junk food at the ready, he put on 35 lbs. Once he was booted off Idol, he got back to the barracks and back in shape. Signed by Nashville's Lyric Street Records, he used leave time to fly back and forth to Nashville to work on the album. In May the family moved closer to Music City, into a three-bedroom house in the Nashville suburb of Franklin, Tenn., but currently Gracin gets only scraps of time to spend there. One recent weekend, says Ann Marie, "he was determined to build Briana a swing set in the yard before he left."
It may be even tougher to see Briana if he tours: "But I have a supporting wife who's a great mother. And it's good to live your dream and have your daughter see that. When she grows up, if she has any doubts about what she wants to do, I can tell her, 'Hey, I lived my dream.' "
Tom Gliatto. Monica Rizzo in Los Angeles
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