WENTZVILLE — When David Butler tried out for Timberland High School's production of "Guys and Dolls" he wanted to dance in the background. Theater teacher Melissa Queen-Couch had other plans for him.
"Whenever he sang, I said, 'No way. This is my Sky, this is my star,'" Queen-Couch said, referring to the musical's male lead, Sky Masterson.
Much to Butler's surprise, Queen-Couch cast him in the lead role.
"He set the bar for who Sky is going to be," said choir teacher Ronda Fields. "I remember telling him one time, 'You're going to be the next John Mayer.'"
Nearly seven years after graduating from the Wentzville school, Butler is well on his way to the national spotlight. On Feb. 9, he released his debut album "Arrivals & Departures," which he describes as a middle ground between pop and alternative with a touch of country.
Even though music has long been part of his life, Butler said he decided only a few years ago to make it a career.
"I wasn't planning on doing anything until I got orders to deploy in 2010 and went through a nasty break-up. The combination of the two made me want to do something pretty significant," he said.
Butler joined the Air Force after graduating from Timberland in 2006. On base, he saw an advertisement for Tops in Blue, an all-active-duty Air Force special unit that performs for U.S. troops across the globe. Butler tried out and spent a year from 2008 to 2009 traveling to nearly 60 countries to perform 180 Broadway-style variety shows.
"If you can imagine being in the military and combining performance with that, it was pretty strict," he said.
Preparing for the tour was intense. Butler said he spent the first three months of his year with Tops in Blue rehearsing nearly 20 hours a day. Performers were responsible for every aspect of the show, he said, including setting up and breaking down about 60,000 pounds of equipment. Besides the heavy lifting and physically demanding routines, the group also had to perform through the elements.
"Sometimes people would pass out backstage from heat exhaustion in the desert show. Other times we would work outside in minus 42-degree weather in Greenland or Alaska til our eyelashes froze," Butler said. During one show at Thule Air Force Base in Greenland, 750 miles north of the Arctic Circle, a performance was interrupted to alert the audience that a polar bear wandered onto the base, Butler said.
"Performing that way kind of awakened the music in me a little bit, so as soon as I got out, around 2009, I started to reteach myself the guitar," he said.
While on leave, Butler dabbled in different instruments and posted some songs to YouTube. About that same time, Butler said, he went though a rough breakup, and turned to music to work his way through it. In 2010, he received orders to deploy to the Middle East. In 2011, he was stationed at a base in Oklahoma where he hooked up with Nguyen Vu, who helped Butler begin to produce and record an album.
Stationed two hours away from the recording studio, Butler said he spent every spare minute for a year working on the record. Butler composed and wrote the entire album, even teaching himself to play the violin and record drum tracks.
"I'd spend 20 hours working as much as I could before I had to go back to base. I tried to to do it all by myself, and then I spent all the money I made putting it together," Butler said.
Butler's album is completely self-made.
Fields said she isn't surprised to find out her former student chose the musical path.
"I'm just thankful he's doing it, because he can, and he should," she said. "You see kids that come and they want to go down the track for professional, and you go, 'Well, good luck.' Then you have other kids who you say, 'You may want to think about it, because you can do it.' I told him that a long time ago."
No longer in in the Air Force, Butler said he finally has the time to promote his album. He hopes to start booking local gigs and touring in the near future.
Some of his former teachers at Timberland are already gleaning a crop of fans for Butler. A picture of Butler's album has prime real estate on the cafeteria's "jumbotron," Queen-Couch said.
"I love every number on it. I've been listening to it over and over, and I've been playing it in my classes so when kids are working on projects and building things they can listen to it," Queen-Couch said.