It took a trip to the grocery store for stardom to kick in for HunterGirl.
Amidst the whirlwind of her runner-up status on American Idol earlier this year, the country music songstress returned home to Tennessee and ended up accompanying her mom on a trip to their local Food Lion. And as HunterGirl was standing in line to check out, she noticed a familiar face staring back at her.
It was hers.
"They had all bought ads in the newspaper for me," remembers HunterGirl, 24, during a recent interview with PEOPLE about her devoted hometown fans. "I was trying not to cry in the supermarket while my mom's picking them all up and going, 'Your nana's getting one, your aunt's getting one, your cousin's getting one.' I just started laughing."
But it was that love that she felt firsthand reverberating off her hometown that led HunterGirl to go back to Nashville after that grocery trip and write her current single "Hometown Out of Me" alongside Grammy Award-nominated songwriter Laura Veltz and producer Jimmy Robbins.
"I just wanted to say thank you to everyone for supporting me through all the craziness of this year," says HunterGirl, referring in part to her successful run on Season 20 of American Idol. "This song is definitely a big thank you card to everybody that's been supporting me since the beginning."
While many in the country music industry long noticed the talent of HunterGirl since her days at Middle Tennessee State University, it took American Idol to permanently put HunterGirl's big smile and incredible voice on the musical landscape. But it was also during the airing of that singing competition show that HunterGirl says she had to hang tight to the small-town charm living within her.
"I'd never been to Los Angeles in my life," remembers HunterGirl. "I mean, you can tell by my accent I don't stray too far from Tennessee! I think just trying to stay true to myself throughout that whole process was not only important, but also somewhat crazy."
And now, even as she finds herself signed with 19 Recordings/BMG and busy at work with her team on new music, HunterGirl continues to find ways to not let the spotlight ever outshine her natural glow.
"This has been my dream since I was a little girl," says HunterGirl, whose rendition of her original song "Red Bird" served as the stunner of the American Idol finale. "I always think about all the shows that I played when nobody was listening. I remember those days singing my original songs and everybody was just talking over me. You're just praying somebody walks in and sees you."
BMG Music Group "Hometown Out of Me" Cover Art
"I feel like the hard work paid off in those three minutes that I was in that judging room," says HunterGirl, who has gone on to open for the likes of Kane Brown, Alan Jackson and Old Dominion. "That was just my journey. And I think that the journey made me appreciate everything so much more. This year has been so special because I finally got to have that moment where little Hunter got to finally see the dream come true."
Now, HunterGirl continues to make that dream come true as she continues to tour alongside her American Idol mate Noah Thompson through the end of the year.
"He was one of my best friends while I was on the show," she says of Thompson. "I really appreciated his friendship and all the friendships that I made on the show, because just adjusting to life again and figuring everything out was crazy. And we are both in country, so we are definitely walking similar paths and just trying to figure life out. I was lucky enough to be on a season where everybody was so close. I found some of my friends for life on that show."