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Is Iam Tongi About to Put 'Hawaiian Country' on the Map? The 'American Idol' Winner Just Might (Exclusive)

"A lot of island songs are just redos of country music," explains Tongi, who has been making frequent visits to Nashville to record new music

<p>Spidey Smith</p> Iam Tongi

Spidey Smith

Iam Tongi

No one guessed Ian Tongi would take on Morgan Wallen in 2023, but here we are.

“Country music means a lot to me because that's what I grew up on,” Tongi, 19, tells PEOPLE from his home state of Hawaii on the day after posting his cover of Wallen’s 2022 chart-topper “Sand in My Boots.”

“I grew up on island music and I grew up on country music. And my dad, he's the one that really got me into it because my dad loved country music. My dad’s favorite singer was George Strait.”

Unfortunately, this shared love for country music was cut short when Tongi lost his father mere months before auditioning for Season 21 of American Idol

“He had a heart attack and then he had two strokes and then he had kidney failure,” remembers Tongi quietly. “He had survived all of that, but then he went to the hospital, and I never thought anything of it because it wasn't a big thing. He just needed to be checked in or whatever. And then next thing you know, I get a call when I'm in Hawaii from my mom to say a prayer.”

Rodney Tongi died of stage 4 kidney disease on Dec. 28. 2021.  He was just 50 years old at the time of his death.

Related: 'American Idol' Winner Iam Tongi Jokes His Family Keeps Him Humble: 'They Don't Only Cheer for Me'

Nevertheless, those days listening and learning about country music with his dad remains a comforting memory for Tongi, who notably played his late father’s guitar during a portion of his successful run on American Idol.

“I learned ‘Coward of the County’ and “Islands in the Stream,’” recalls Tongi of the late Kenny Rogers’ hits of the past. “My dad kept pushing me every day to learn a lot of country songs. I learned a lot of Garth Brooks' songs too. Growing up, that's what my dad wanted me to learn. Most of the songs that I learned was country songs.”

<p>Spidey Smith</p> Iam Tongi

Spidey Smith

Iam Tongi

Certainly, it is no surprise that Tongi’s late father continues to guide his life, nearly two years after his death. It was in fact his death that indirectly propelled Tongi to audition for American Idol in the first place.

“My mom told me to do it for dad,” Tongi says quietly of the audition that quickly went viral, amassing over 100 million views on YouTube, making him the most viral artist in the history of American Idol. “I had a bad attitude in the beginning because I felt like there was no reason for me to come on. They were just going to say that I was not good enough. And then I won the thing, and that was crazy.”

Related: 'American Idol' Has a New Champion! Iam Tongi Wins Season 21

In fact, Tongi made history as the first person from Hawaii and the first Pacific Islander to claim victory on American Idol. So, to come back to country music at this point isn’t as big of a stretch as some might think.

“A lot of island songs are just redos of country music,” explains Tongi, who has been making frequent visits to Nashville to record new music. “You’ve got Molo Try. He does a lot of country music but makes it reggae. You’ve got the Ka’au Crater Boys. They're a classic Hawaiian band. A lot of their songs are just country songs but done with ukulele.”

Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images Iam Tongi wins American Idol
Eric McCandless/ABC via Getty Images Iam Tongi wins American Idol

And yes, Tongi loves Morgan Wallen.

“He’s fire,” Tongi remarks, whose new single “Why Kiki?” carries its own pieces of country sound. “All his songs and his songwriting skills? They are just really good. I’ve never met him. Hopefully one day.”

And hopefully his dad will too.

“My dad was a tough love kind of guy, but in those moments that you needed someone to lean on, he was always there,” Tongi says quietly. “That's why I really appreciate my father and I love him and miss him.”

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