Singer Jillian Cardarelli left the Newport (R.I.) Yachting Center, where she opened for Willie Nelson earlier in the evening, and along with some family and friends walked to a local restaurant for a late dinner.
Not long after being seated, Cardarelli and her party were approached by a thrilled staff member.
“Did you perform in Connecticut about a month ago?” the young man asked.
“Yes, I did,” Cardarelli said.
“I was there. You were amazing!” he told her.
Two-and-a-half hours from her Haverhill home and more than 150 miles from where that show took place, Cardarelli had found one of her fans.
A picture was taken; an autograph signed; and more evidence was amassed: People are discovering Jillian Cardarelli.
The 20-year-old Haverhill native and Nashville-based artist’s stock has been on the rise during a recent hot streak that has seen her opening for two of the biggest acts in the history of country music.
In June, she took the stage before 10-time Grammy winner Willie Nelson. And in April and May, she opened for Alabama, recently voted the best country band of all time by tasteofcountry.com.
“A year ago, I never would have imagined this,” Cardarelli said. “I have to think to myself, ‘Is this really happening?’”
It’s all very surreal, she said.
“Willie Nelson is an icon. I listen to his records all the time. Everyone in country music bows down to Willie Nelson,” she said. “I never dreamed in a million years that I would be opening for him.”
Cardarelli, who is as comfortable performing a rousing rendition of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” as she is delivering the smooth vocals required for Ashley Monroe’s “She’s Driving Me Out Of Your Mind,” has dreamed of being a singer and songwriter since she was a child.
“Jillian is a natural,” said her manager, country music veteran Renee Martin. “I was born in Nashville and raised on country music. My mother was a singer and my father was a guitar player. I have toured for acts like Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and Patty Loveless. I have seen hundreds of people move to Nashville trying to become a country singer, only to leave with their tails between their legs and their guitars on their back, penniless. I have seen it over and over. Once in a while, someone comes around that has ‘it.’”
Cardarelli is that every-once-in-awhile someone, Martin said.
“When I met her, I thought, ‘She is a superstar,’” he said. “I really believe Jillian will be a force to be reckoned with in this industry.”
Cardarelli was weaned on her parents’ music while growing up.
“I am a big Elvis (Presley) fan,” said her father, Joseph Cardarelli Jr., an orthodontist in Haverhill. “His music crosses so many generations, and I think that is what began to inspire her.”
She was also influenced by her grandfather, the late Joseph Cardarelli Sr., who she recently honored with a performance of the Judds classic “Grampa.”
“My grandfather passed away last April,” said Cardarelli, who attended Governor’s Academy. “He was my buddy. He is the one that really introduced me to country music. I remember sitting on his couch every Sunday listening to George Strait. He helped me fall in love with music at a young age.”
That love of music quickly turned into a love of performing.
“I started singing to the radio,” she said. “Then I started performing in the middle school talent shows, and now here we are. My dad definitely inspired me to get into music. He signed me up for singing lessons and drives me all around to different gigs.”
Cardarelli released her first album, “Little Big Sky,” in 2010. Her five-song EP, “Just Me & You,” premiered in November. Those, along with her single “Complicated,” which benefits the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, are available on iTunes.
She also became a favorite in the TD Garden, singing the National Anthem for both the Boston Bruins and Boston Celtics.
After pursuing her career while living in Haverhill and Rhode Island as a Providence College student, Cardarelli made the decision to move to the center of the country music world, Nashville, at the start of 2013.
“I kind of felt like it was now or never,” said Cardarelli, who also attends Belmont University. “I thought that, if I am going to give it all I have, I have to be where the music is at.”
Boston will always be her home, she said, but she loves Nashville.
“Everyone has the same goals. You feel like you are on the same page as everyone, and they are very supportive,” she said. “It is cut-throat, but not nearly as cut-throat as Los Angeles is. I love hearing country music on every street corner and at every ice cream shop and coffee shop every day.”
Working with Martin and many others around Nashville, Cardarelli has drawn considerable attention.
Alabama offered her the chance to open for them on April 26 in Wallingford Conn., in front of a crowd of 4,000. The band was so impressed that they invited her backstage and asked her to open again on May 1 in New York, an opportunity she accepted on the spot.
“It was totally surreal,” she said. “It was like a dream. I woke up and thought to myself, ‘Did that really just happen?’”
Then came the request to open for Nelson.
“I got a call from the people I work with in Nashville and they asked if I would be interested in opening for Willie Nelson in a few weeks,” she remembered. “I said, ‘I’ll think about it ... of course! I would love to open for Willie Nelson!’ A few days before the show they called me and said the gig was on, and I did a dance around my apartment.”
Performing a combination of her original material (“Maybe Baby” and “Worth the Whiskey”) along with cover songs during her 30-minute set, Cardarelli quickly won over the crowd.
“She has this presence,” said her guitarist, Matthew Dolland, a Nashville-based performer and Berklee College of Music graduate. “It’s a voice and a personality. People seemed to be drawn to her. We played a gig a few weeks ago at Legends Corner (in Nashville) and as soon as she hits the microphone, everyone is drawn to her. Not everyone has that.”
On Aug. 1, she will perform alongside the popular band The Lost Trailers and Boston native Ayla Brown at Bangor Waterfront Park in Bangor, Maine, as part of the Waterfront Concern Series.
“When you’re out there, you just hope you don’t forget the words and just want to entertain the crowd,” she said. “It’s really been a fantastic experience and I feel so fortune to have done what I have done. I know I will give it my all to continue on.”
David Willis is an Eagle-Tribune writer/videographer. His video features can be seen at eagletribune.com