Billy Croft started his entertainment career where most people start: at the bottom.
There really was nowhere for him to go but up. So where did he wind up going?
Down to Nashville, Tenn., that is. Where unknown names in the music industry go to hit it big and well-known names go to hit it bigger.
It took him a few years to get there, though. Turns out the road from the Western suburbs to the country music scene has a few curves and bumps.
After graduating from St. Charles High School in 1989, the guy who had spent all his time playing sports found himself taking dance lessons.
He had driven his girlfriend to dance class more than a few times and had become a familiar face around the studio, so her instructor offered him the chance to take a few lessons.
Much to his surprise, Croft found himself to be quite the entertainer.
He soon took dancing to the next level and got involved in community theater. There, he decided to see what he could do with a microphone.
"My family's always been musical," Croft said, adding that his mom's side of the family features a few vaudevillians. "I always knew I had a love for it (music), but I didn't know I had the talent for it until I was a little older."
In 1991, Croft landed a gig at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles as a paid performer for four months. While working there, he had the unimaginable opportunity to not only meet country music legend Kenny Rogers, but to sing on stage with him as part of the choir for his annual Christmas concert.
For Croft, an avid fan of country music, it was a dream come true.
Still, Croft had other plans for his career. Because he'd always known he wanted to help people, he went to school to become an emergency medical technician and has worked for the Naperville Fire Department since 1995.
He didn't dare give up his passion for singing, though, and kept it going by spending the next few years participating in karaoke contests at area bars. Then in 1998, he won the chance to see where he could go with a solo career in country music.
"I kept winning and winning and winning," Croft said of his karaoke contest days. "Until I got to the regional level and (Sonic Records) gave me 10 hours of studio time in Nashville, Tenn."
Down in Music City, Croft happened to be recording his 10-song CD of country music covers at the studio Kenny Rogers' road manager was running - and seven years later, he still recognized him.
"He said, 'Hey, I know a guy you need to talk to,'" Croft recalled. "Then we got an investor right away and I started recording (my first CD) in Nashville. It's been a wild ride ever since."
That guy Croft needed to talk to was Richard Donahue, president of Next Level Entertainment, who wrote the 1980s single "It's the Lover, Not the Love," for pop artist Tiffany.
Today, Croft still works with Donahue along with co-producer and songwriter Danny Wells, who wrote country music star George Strait's No. 1 hit, "Check Yes or No" in 1994 and has worked with other well-known country music stars.
For a while, Croft's job as a firefighter afforded him the freedom to keep up with both passions. But as his music career started to snowball, so did some bad habits.
"Somewhere along the way, I got lost," Croft admitted. "I pretty much lost everything."
Two years of hitting the drug and alcohol scene pretty hard left him with unsigned record deals and a failed marriage. What he lost, though, he found again on a mission trip to Honduras about a year after getting clean.
Serving in the Central American country, Croft realized love can bridge any communication barrier, whether it's language or otherwise. He recalled one little girl in particular; the way she smiled at him, the way she held his hand, showed to him that they didn't need to speak each other's language to connect in a spiritual way.
"Though (God's) grace and love, I got sober," Croft said.
He even remarried his ex-wife, but, years later, got divorced again.
"Even though I was sober, there were a lot of wounds that couldn't be healed, on both sides," he said.
Coming back from Honduras, Croft found his place in the Christian music scene. He formed the Christian band Unified and secured a record deal with NuWay Records out of Nashville. He wrote and produced the band's debut CD, Hearts on Fire, which came out in 2006.
With Donahue's help, he also wrote and recorded his first single, "Started with a Child," which is still in rotation today on Christian radio stations in the Midwest around the holidays.
Still a firefighter, the father of two works as the worship leader at Lord of Life Lutheran Church near Elburn, but is working on getting his boots dirty in Nashville again.
"Country music connects to me in this unbelievable way," he said. "It really talks about who I am - that's just being a caring and honest, straightforward person. They talk about stories of life and life isn't perfect."
As much as he likes singing, Croft really wants to get into the songwriting business. As his co-producer, Wells has worked closely with Croft to hone those skills.
"Danny and I became great friends. He didn't have to take me under his wing and teach me how to be a songwriter, but he saw something in me."
Recently, Croft was shopping for some new boots on Lower Broadway in Nashville. While he was trying on a pair, the salesman told him, "You ain't country 'til them boots dirty," he remembered.
That line set off bells and whistles in Croft's head. He met up with Wells and they pounded out a song together in about an hour.
"It's one of those songs that everybody's excited about in Nashville. We're just waiting for the right person to cut it," Croft said, adding that country musician Jason Aldean has shown interest.
While he continues to work on his solo career, Croft travels the Midwest with his band, Billy Croft & The 5-Alarm, made up of local artists.
"We're busy as all get-out," he said of their summer concert schedule.
Upcoming shows include being part of the "It's Thursday Concert Series" at 7 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 19, at Church Street and Maple Avenue in Evanston, and playing a "Tribute to Firefighters" benefit concert at 9 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18, in Green Island, Iowa, to raise money for a firefighter memorial.
The Iowa show is what the band's really all about, Croft said.
"I've always wanted to help people in some kind of way," he said.
His fellow band members - Lucy Dunn (part of the Hix Music clan from Aurora), Dave Eno, Mike Gerbitz, Chris Plasch and Chris Babb - all agreed that they wanted to use their concerts to extend their reach into the community, so they asked each other, "How do we help people (while playing) in bars?" They came up with the idea to collect aluminum can tabs at their concerts.
In keeping with Croft's passion for firefighting, the money made from collecting the tabs is donated to the burn unit at the Shriners Hospital for Children in Chicago because "that's a hard way to go through life," he said, adding that "Danny and I are already thinking about writing a song for kids who are burned."
The group also works to raise money for various fire departments to buy new equipment or for other initiatives and is just "there to help them out" because he knows firsthand what it's like to sacrifice for others.
"I just love this environment (being a firefighter) because you never know what you're going to get. We get to see people at their worst and they really appreciate (us) being there. When you do save that one person, it makes it all worthwhile."