Local mom lands spot at Rising Star finals

by Rick Scavetta
U.S. Army Garrison Kaiserslautern

A few months ago, Shaunna Cook was driving past an Operation Rising Star billboard with her son J.J. when the 10-year-old suggested she try out for the singing competition.

The former Army staff sergeant, who once toured the globe with the U.S. Army Soldier Show, explained to her son that she might be getting too old for a singing career.

“You’re never too old to go for your dreams,” J.J. said.

Last year, Mrs. Cook had also seen advertisements for the contest, sponsored annually by the U.S. Army Family and Morale, Welfare and Recreation Command. But with a job and her family, she passed by thinking she had little time for singing.

This year, she decided to follow the advice of her biggest fan and try out.

“He told me, ‘Mama, I know you’re going to win,” Mrs. Cook said.

Mrs. Cook, 31, of Tampa, Fla., began singing gospel at age 5. She comes from a musical family and both parents were church pastors. In high school, she sang in a gospel choir. But soul music was her passion. She was charmed by the sounds of Sam Cooke, a soul music pioneer. Other influences include Marvin Gaye and Toni Braxton.

In 1997, Mrs. Cook joined the Army, telling her mother she was going off to see the world. While in the Army, she took many opportunities to sing while stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga. Within a year, she won a coveted spot on the U.S. Army Soldier Show, a travelling troupe of military talent that toured Army bases around the globe. That tour taught her to sing in different genres, she said, from country to pop to soft rock.

“I went to many installations and places overseas to include Bosnia and Germany,” Mrs. Cook said. “I got to see the world while singing and dancing. That was a beautiful thing.”

The former Army human resources specialist spent a decade in uniform. She is now an administrative assistant with the 409th Contracting Support Brigade at Panzer Kaserne in Kaisers-lautern. Her husband Derek is a senior non-commissioned officer with the 7th Civil Support Command, a U.S. Army Reserve unit at nearby Daenner Kaserne.

In early September, encouraged by her family to return to singing, Mrs. Cook went through an a capella audition, where she sang Brian McKnight’s “One Last Cry.” That landed her a spot among Kaiserslautern’s 16 local competitors who took to the stage Sept. 10 at Vogelweh’s Kazabra Club. 

She was last to go on that night. She was nervous. It had been a few years since she performed before a large crowd. She heard all the contestants sing before her. In the ladies room, she prayed, “God, let me get this one.”

For Mrs. Cook, a song is a story. And as the singer, she is the storyteller. Putting herself into the lyrics, imagining she is part of the story, is important for her to reach the audience, she said.

“If I sing a sad song and people are crying, I’ve told my story. If it’s a happy song, then they are glad,” she said. “But if they are left just sitting there, I’ve done nothing.”

That evening, she wowed the audience and the judges with her rendition of Gladys Knight and the Pips’ 1973 hit “Midnight Train to Georgia.” After the votes were tallied, Mrs. Cook came out on top. When she won, her husband cheered out the loudest for her.

Later, at home, Mrs. Cook’s son J.J. asked to keep the oversized $500 check awarded after her performance.

“I told you,” J.J. said. “I knew you were going to win.”