By Dave Willis
---- — When her eyes opened the next morning, for a few moments Jillian Cardarelli wondered if her dream night was a reality.
“It was totally surreal,” she said. “It was like a dream. I woke up and thought to myself, ‘Did that really just happen?’”
On Friday night, the 20-year-old Haverhill singer wowed a crowd of more 4,000 country music fans at the Oakdale Theater in Wallingford, Conn., as the opening act for iconic country band Alabama.
“It was honestly the best experience of my entire life,” said Cardarelli. “It was truly amazing. I feel so blessed and so honored. I had to pinch myself.”
It was the latest highlight in the young singer’s emerging career, which includes the release of her album “Just Me & You” during the winter and a move to Nashville to pursue her career and attend college in January.
“She was just great,” said professional singer Lisa Greg, who sang backup vocals for Cardarelli on Friday. “I toured with Faith Hill and Tim McGraw for six years and sang on albums for performers like Reba McEntire. She (Cardarelli) reminds me of a young Faith because she just has this big, fantastic voice.”
For Cardarelli, a life-long lover of country music, the opportunity to open for legendary Alabama — which has 41 No. 1 country hits and was recently voted the best country band of all time by tasteofcountry.com — was an amazing experience.
“I feel so blessed and honored,” she said. “I remember listening to Alabama’s music when I was 3 years old. My grandfather, who really passed the love of country music onto me, loved them and my father loved them. It was very intimidating.”
Performing a combination of her original material — including songs “Maybe Baby” and “Worth the Whiskey” — along with old favorites such as the Johnny Cash classic “Folsom Prison Blues” during her 30-minute set, Cardarelli quickly won over the crowd, which began singing along with many of the older songs.
She also won the attention of Alabama. The band’s members invited her and her family back stage after their performance. They took pictures together, and the band’s tour manager offered Cardarelli the chance to open for them again on Wednesday in New York, an opportunity she quickly accepted.
“I was shocked when their manager came up to me after the show and asked me to come back in five days,” she said. “It was mind-blowing. I never expected another opportunity to come out of that day.”
The pursuit of a career in country music has been a longtime ambition for Cardarelli.
“I am a big Elvis (Presley) fan,” said her father, Joseph Cardarelli, an orthodontist in Haverhill. “His music crosses so many generations, and I think that is what inspired her.”
That love of music quickly turned into a love of performing for Jillian.
“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.”
Her first album, “Little Big Sky” was released in 2010, and the 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 has also become a favorite at the TD Garden in Boston, singing the national anthem at Bruins and Celtics games.
Cardarelli took a major step this winter, when she made the decision to move to Nashville to pursue her singing career while also attending Belmont University.
“I kind of felt like it was now or never,” said Cardarelli, who previously attended Providence College. “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 my home, but I love Nashville,’’ she said. “Everyone has the same goals. You feel like you are on the same page as everyone, and they are very supportive. It is cutthroat, but not nearly as cutthroat as Los Angeles is. I love hearing country music on every street corner and at every ice cream shop and coffee shop every day.”
Cardarelli said giving full dedication to the music business has certainly been an eye-opener.
“A lot more goes into the music business than I every thought,” she said. “So many people go into making something the best it can be. You have to make sure you surround yourself with people that have your best interests at heart. It’s very easy to fall into traps with people that want to use you. I have a great manager in Renee Martin who has coached me and made me better in everything from vocals to stage presence.”
Based upon the reactions on Friday from fans who filled the lobby of the Oakdale Theater waiting for autographs and pictures with Cardarelli, an unknowing spectator would have believed she had already achieved stardom.
“She just has this amazing, powerful voice that you don’t expect” said Greg, Cardarelli’s backup vocals singer during Friday’s performance. “You expect her voice to be soft and sweet because that’s how she looks. But then this big, powerful voice comes out and it’s really amazing.”
With the school year over, Cardarelli will be spending time in Haverhill, while also visiting Nashville to write, perform and further polish her talents.
“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.”
For a video interview with Haverhill singer Jillian Cardarelli, along with a video of her opening performance for the band Alabama, visit hgazette.com or eagletribune.com.