( AP )- Beneath the shaggy hair and mild-mannered demeanor of "American Idol" contestant David Cook is a seasoned musician who's rocked his way through the gritty club scene in America's heartland.
The 25-year-old native of Blue Springs, Mo., brought his aspiring music career to Tulsa two years ago after graduating from Central Missouri State University with a degree in graphic design. But despite a college degree and even a few career opportunities, Cook's friends and band mates from Tulsa say there's nothing Cook would rather be doing than performing and making music.
"He's the real thing," said Jeff Martinson, the owner of the Blank Slate complex of clubs in downtown Tulsa's Blue Dome district, where Cook bartended and enjoyed a flourishing musical career before landing a spot on the Fox Television program.
"He's gone out and actually played hundreds of gigs in bars in front of, sometimes, five people. He's the real deal in the sense that regardless of what happens in this competition, he'll still be out playing three nights a week."
Cook attended Blue Springs South High School, where he played baseball, showed promise in theater and debate and played with his high school band, Axium.
"He was involved in a lot of different activities, but no matter what he did, there was always music," said Susan Cooper, Cook's theater teacher. "You could tell that was his passion."
While playing the nightclub scene with Axium while in college, Cook became familiar with Tulsa's music scene after the band opened a gig for a popular Tulsa-based group, Midwest Kings.
"We all gelled and kept in touch over the years, and eventually David came down to be a guitar player for Midwest Kings," said Josh Center, a session drummer who plays with the band.
Cook's opportunity with an established band exposed him to the hardworking music scene in and around Tulsa and let him cut his teeth in various music venues. The regional touring band frequently piled into a 15-passenger van and played a mix of shows in Oklahoma cities like Oklahoma City, Tulsa, Norman, Stillwater, as well as cities in Wisconsin, Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska, Center said.
Cook mainly played guitar and sang backup vocals for the group, but in the meantime worked on separate projects, including a solo album titled "Analog Heart."
Martinson, the club owner, said the experience Cook gained touring with Midwest Kings is proving invaluable for Cook as he works his way through "American Idol."
"He's gone places musically that some of these kids haven't even seen," Martinson said.
For Center, who admits Cook's appearance on the show has "sucked him in," he's enjoyed watching Cook improve his skills as a front man.
"The level of comfort he has when he's moving. He's always had a guitar, and singing without one has always been a level of concern. David is now grasping that concept and getting it.
"He looks comfortable and really engages the crowd."
The judges on the show apparently agree. During a cover on last week's program of The Beatles classic "Eleanor Rigby," Cook impressed all three judges - even Simon Cowell.
"If this show remains a talent competition rather than a popularity competition, you actually could win this entire show," Cowell told Cook after the performance.
For Cook's friends and fellow musicians, they say the young crooner is just warming up.
"He's a great guy with a tremendous voice," Martinson said. "And one of the things he's got on all these people in this competition is that he's got several more gears to go into."