Lauren Mascitti's voice tightened and hushed as she recalled singing to a COVID patient at the Nashville, Tennessee area hospital where she works as a nurse.
Days were few for the man in hospice care. Mascitti asked him to name his favorite musical artist. He didn't hesitate: Reba McEntire.
Classic country is smack dab in the Stark County native's wheelhouse. So through the muffle of protective gear, Mascitti belted out his favorite song, "Fancy," the former "American Idol" contestant's voice filling the room as oxygen kept the man alive.
The impromptu bedside concert was the last performance the patient would see before he died a day or two later, his lungs severely scarred from a virus that has claimed a million lives in this country since the spring of 2020.
A graduate of Stark State College's nursing program, Mascitti has sung to other patients, but this memory still lingers vividly three or four months later.
"His lungs were just so tired and giving out; it was a really wild situation," she recalled. "You wouldn't think that it would be possible for a 50-something (man) that was completely in his right mind to really not have a chance."
But "I do take comfort in the fact that his family actually reached out to me later on and said how much that meant to him and meant to them that I could sing some music that he really loved, and kind of took his mind off the situation for a while."
Lauren Mascitti to headline Canton show
Singing to people fighting COVID or other illnesses, as well as praying with them, is "something bigger than myself," Mascitti explained during a phone interview from her Nashville home last week.
Tired from picking up a nursing shift the night before, she relied on coffee for a kickstart. Excitement masked fatigue as soon as the conversation turned to making and playing music, including plans to unveil a new song at Saturday night's Concert for First Responders at Centennial Plaza in downtown Canton.
Mascitti is headlining her biggest Stark County performance ever. Buck Naked Band opens at 6 p.m. Mascitti is scheduled to perform from 8 to 10 p.m.
Centennial Plaza is on Market Avenue N between Third and Fourth streets NW.
The show is being sponsored by Kempthorn Motors, Akron-based WQMX 94.9 and the Hall of Fame Village powered by Johnson Controls. Other presenting sponsors are the Downtown Canton Special Improvement District, CSE Federal Credit Union and SARTA.
Todd Herberghs, director of the Special Improvement District, said he's "super excited" about the event.
"Especially since it's a big performance with a big performer," he said of Mascitti. "And we'll draw people from out of town."
Admission is free, but donations will benefit volunteer, reserve and auxiliary firefighters, paramedics and police officers who incur out-of-pocket expenses while serving the public. Donations can be made online through the nonprofit event at https://givesendgo.com/concertforfirstresponders.
All of the funds raised will be awarded to departments in Stark County that demonstrate a practical need for the money, event organizers said.
'I'm trying to put all my eggs in the music basket and go full force at it this year.'
Mascitti balances nursing and music. She works part time at TriStar Horizon Medical Center, and wants to keep her nursing license current regardless of what course her music career takes.
Right now, she's focused on both crafting her own songs and writing for others. Mascitti recently got a co-songwriting credit with Maggie Baugh in country pop for "Seein' Somebody."
"I've really just been trying to keep my nose to the grindstone and just book as many shows and as many co-writes," Mascitti said, adding she's scaled back her nursing hours. "I'm trying to put all my eggs in the music basket and go at it full force this year, and so I'm really thankful things are starting to move."
"My goal (this year) is actually to get a publishing deal so I can write songs for a living," she said. "I consider myself just as much of a writer as I'm an artist.
"I just love the creative process. I love performing. I love writing. I'm just kind of leaving it up to the Lord as far as what doors he wants to open for me."
'God uses you in different seasons of your life.'
Nursing allows Mascitti to schedule and modify her hours based on her studio and concert schedule.
"Everybody I work with is really supportive ... and my bosses, they understand what I'm here for, and they're all really supportive, and when I was on 'American Idol,' they were all just super supportive."
Encouragement also comes from her grandmother, "Nana" Dee Mascitti.
Lauren was raised by her grandparents, who also live in Nashville. Dee Mascitti has been her biggest fan, cheering on her granddaughter at "American Idol" and sitting among the crowd at Lauren's performance at the Hartville MarketPlace & Flea Market in October.
"We're so excited about coming home and seeing our friends," the elder Mascitti said of the Centennial Plaza show. "The concert is going to be a blast. Two great bands for a good cause."
Last month, Mascitti released a studio version of the stirring ballad, "If I Can Lose You," which had earned her a golden ticket on "American Idol."
Mascitti's 2020 album garnered critical praise, including from The New York Times, but it was difficult to gain traction and promote the record with touring ruled out during the earlier stages of the pandemic.
"American Idol" judges had given her a standing ovation for what became the album's title track, "God Made a Woman." Other standouts include the earnest and up-tempo, "I Wanna Show You My Town," an ode to her Louisville roots.
Another prized track is the toe-tapping, piano-driven, "All the Words He Never Said." "Hello Sad Eyes" showcases a mature voice seemingly transported from a bygone era of country music radio.
And she closes out the album with "My Love Will Not Change," a barn burner of a song featuring nimble guitar-picking and dance hall sway.
Mascitti was quick to make peace with the poor timing of the studio release.
"I think God uses you in different seasons of your life, and I feel really honored and blessed that I was able to be a nurse during the last couple years and work alongside my colleagues and work through this COVID situation," she said.
'Really scary and unknown'
Working as a nurse during the pandemic has been both rewarding and daunting.
"I feel really fulfilled that I was able to be a part of that and kind of take action in an area that was really scary and unknown, and I learned a lot about myself and what I can handle."
COVID cases, however, "have gone way down, and the cases that we do see are a lot more mild," Mascitti said. "So things are looking a lot better for right now, knock on wood."
Too busy to watch much TV, including 'American Idol'
Singing and writing songs since age 7, Mascitti undoubtedly got a boost from "American Idol."
While she's enormously grateful for the opportunity, Mascitti admitted she's been too busy to watch much television, including the current season of the popular show. She noted she tries to follow the competition through social media.
Two years ago, the Louisville High School graduate was on the verge of breaking into the top 20. Viewers had to break a tie after celebrity judges couldn't decide between Mascitti and another singer.
"I was so blessed," she said of the experience. "And that whole situation, it was so exciting, and I just can't say enough about it. I'm really thankful that I went ahead and did it, and I made a lot of really great friends, and my entire experience with 'American Idol' was just really positive."
Living her dream on the Grand Ole Opry stage
Mascitti admits she may have grown her audience and appeal even more had she leaned into a mainstream pop country sound.
But she never strays from her country music convictions. She's unapologetically old school, marrying impassioned, crystalline vocals with classic country arrangements without sounding dated.
"I love the depth and the artistic, poetic quality of the music of the past," she said of the '60s and '70s, particularly country. "I've always related to that."
However, she complimented all genres, and plans to branch out when writing music for other artists.
And regardless of how often her own music is streamed, Mascitti has already lived a Nashville dream.
"Honestly, my main goal ever since I can remember was to play the Grand Ole Opry," she said. "Most people like to get a (country music award) or Grammy or whatever, but for me, it was to play the Grand Ole Opry. That was the peak for me, and I was so blessed to be able to do that three times last year.
"... Anything that comes after that is just a cherry on top."
Linda Ronstadt and Rolling Stones songs planned for Saturday's show
Mascitti promises a varied show Saturday.
"I'm really lucky and blessed to have my band here in Nashville coming along with me," she said. "The guys are just world-class musicians."
Band members have performed with some of country music's finest, including Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Tanya Tucker and Garth Brooks. They include Mike Bub, upright bass; Peter Wasner, pianist; Larry Atamanuik, drummer; and Steven Nolan, lead guitarist.
Mascitti's set will blend originals with some of the classic country covers she has showcased online with an acoustic guitar at her Nashville home, as well as a few surprises, including Linda Ronstadt and The Rolling Stones.
"I'm trying to keep my setlist really upbeat and fun, and I want this to be a celebration, because we're coming out on the other side of something really dark and something really heavy," she said. "And things are getting better, and I just want it to be a party."
'I looked back at how precious time is, and when it's gone, it's gone, and you shouldn't waste it.'
She's also enthused about performing a new song the same day as its release, "Everybody Said Amen."
"It's a positive song," Mascitti said. "Whenever you think of summertime, you always want something that is happy and light and hopeful. I wrote that song kind of coming out on the other side of COVID after having gone through a really difficult year myself in my personal life, and then dealing with the emotions of COVID.
"And just my spirit feeling really heavy," she continued. "Coming out on the other side of that, I look back at how precious time is, and how when it's gone, it's gone, and you shouldn't waste it.
"... And I feel like a lot of medical personnel and people who have been affected by COVID are ready to share the sentiment with me, and kind of look at the future and not be held back from the pain of the past."
Reach Ed at 330-580-8315 and email@example.com
On Twitter @ebalintREP
This article originally appeared on The Repository: Lauren Mascitti wants Canton Concert for First Responders to be party