Eleven years ago, Jimmie Allen auditioned for American Idol and made it to Hollywood, but he was cut right before the live rounds. However, the star-making show still opened doors for him. And now, as one of country music’s brightest new stars — and one of many Black country artists, along with Darius Rucker, Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Allison Russell, Brittney Spencer, Breland, and Rhiannon Giddens, who are kicking open doors in Nashville — Jimmie returned to Idol Sunday, as the top 24 performed for America’s votes for first time this season.
And the ACM Awards’ New Male Artist of the Year and CMA Awards’ New Artist of the Year winner shared a touching moment with fellow Black country singer and Season 20 top 24 hopeful Mike Parker that truly felt historic and torch-passing, and had everyone — including Jimmie and Mike themselves — in tears. “[Jimmie’s] journey is what inspires millions of people that look like me,” an emotional Mike explained.
Mike had already decided to perform his idol Jimmie’s breakout hit “Best Shot” — the first debut single by a Black artist to top the Billboard Country Airplay chart — before he even knew that Jimmie was this week’s mentor. So, Mike was in for the shock of his life when Jimmie comically bumrushed him in Hawaii, where this week’s top 24 round took place. But when they finally had a chance to have a one-on-one sit-down, Mike more seriously explained to Jimmie that when he was searching for his own musical identity, “I did a lot of digging — I watched a lot of your interviews, man, and just how you perceived country music yourself.” Mike described the epiphany he experienced from studying Jimmie’s career as “life-changing” and the chance to work with Jimmie as a “dream come true.”
Tears immediately streamed down Jimmie’s cheeks as he told Mike, “Hearing you tell me that I’m an inspiration reminds me of my purpose.” Later, after Mike beautifully performed Jimmie’s No. 1 hit with Jimmie openly weeping in the audience, the wowed judges barely even commented. “Thank you for making me not have to judge! … I could just enjoy the birth of you as an artist,” said Luke, while Katy Perry said, “This experience has really helped you arrive. … We don’t need to critique you; we just need to congratulate you.” Instead, the judges let Jimmie have the floor.
“For him to tell me that I mean to him what Charley Pride meant to me, it’s more that I could have asked for,” confessed a choked-up Jimmie, who dueted with trailblazer Charley Pride at the 2020 CMA Awards (in what turned out to be Pride’s final public performance) and presented Pride with a Lifetime Achievement Award that night. “So, thank you. And thank you for continuing what me, Charley, Mickey, Kane, and Darius want to see in this genre of music.”
“He made me feel like there’s a spot for me in country music. I’m going to remember this day until I leave this Earth,” Mike gushed. Although it seems like Mike is a shoo-in to advance to the top 20 live rounds after this magical moment, whatever happens next on the show, he has clearly already won.
However, Mike had some stiff competition this Sunday, as 11 other contestants performed songs of their own choosing on Disney’s Aulani Resort outdoor stage — for both a live audience of Mai Tai-swilling tourists and, just as importantly, for the voters watching at home. Let’s assess those performances, and make some tough elimination predictions…
Jay Copeland, “I Want You Back”
I don’t think Jay’s sluggish slow-jam version of the zippy Jackson 5 classic did him any favors (Lionel Richie questioned the song choice), although he did pick up the pace and pump up the jam about halfway through. He capably worked the crowd (“Can I get a real nice snap?” he urged at one point), and Lionel seemed entertained by his display of old-school showmanship, but the overall effect was very old-fashioned, very Justin Guarini circa Season 1. And all that ad-libbing and riffing at the end was wholly unnecessary; Luke said Jay once again “over-extended” himself and warned him, “Make sure you structure your songs to showcase the best aspects of your voice.” Katy also wondered aloud who Jay “could be as an artist… I don’t know it just yet,” which was not a great sign.
Elli Rowe, “Everywhere”
Jimmie loved Elli’s solo acoustic rehearsal of the winsome, airy Fleetwood Mac song and recommended that she not do it with full band accompaniment — but she either ignored his advice, or she didn’t have a choice in the matter. I will say that the band held back and didn’t overpower her, and that Elli’s sweetness and subtlety after Jay’s showboating was refreshing. (Katy was “transported” by Elli’s “beautiful and angelic” presence, and Luke said this “felt like a moment.”) However, Elli’s weak vocals didn’t quite have that pristine McVie songbird quality, which all of the judges suspected was due to nerves; Luke even pointed out that a “few notes were not altogether there.”
Tristen Gressett, “With a Little Help From My Friends”
Doing his second Beatles song of the season — albeit a Joe Cocker-inspired version, in this case — this 17-year-old that host Ryan Seacrest described as “wise beyond his years” fearlessly commanded the stage with his white-jeaned high kicks and hijinks. “Is there a priest or pastor in the house? Because you are possessed. You’re a freak!” Katy exclaimed, intending this as a high compliment; she also called Tristen a “rock star.” Lionel even compared the mic-twirling Tristen to Steven Tyler. Yes, there were some times when Tristen actually seemed more like John Belushi parodying Joe Cocker in that famous SNL bit, but for the most part, he harnessed his theatricality for good. Let’s face it, every Idol season needs a great token throwback rocker, be it Caleb Johnson or Casey Bishop or Cade Foehner… and I’m glad that this season, it’s Tristen. He is a ton o’ fun.
I totally dug snarling Scarlet’s attitudinal and unhinged Alanis cover last week, which was a better fit for her than Dua Lipa’s lightweight disco-dolly hit this time around. I felt “Levitating’s” fast verses tripped her up and didn’t ever jibe with her lower register. (Katy thought the beginning was too quiet but said Scarlet eventually “got there,” while Luke said Scarlet “started a little weird” and told her to “button up your note choices and make sure every one of them is thought out properly.”) However, Scarlet did perform like a pro, clearly feeding off the energy of the cheering and possibly tipsy crowd, and Katy told her, “You’ve got a real artist’s perspective and vision.” I personally found this effort underwhelming. I prefer Scarlet in angry rocker-chick mode.
Even country superstar Jimmie admitted he’d be nervous to sing this “big song by a big artist,” but Sage had nothing to worry about. Borrowing a bit from the White Stripes’ dark and brooding remake (she’d be a great signing to Jack White’s Third Man Records label, come to think of it), Sage authoritatively delivered what Katy called a “very hypnotic rendition” of Dolly Parton’s classic and what Jimmie called a “great surprise.” Katy and Luke were certain that this “special artistic talent” would make it to the top five, and I hope they are right — but I worry that Sage, due to her lack of previous screentime, flew too under the radar this season. Hopefully this compelling, masterful performance was enough to finally make viewers take notice.
Danielle Finn, “Your Song”
After Katy called Danielle’s Showstoppers performance “rough” and her worst yet, Danielle really needed to redeem herself this week. Unfortunately, this was not the way to do that. While I thought the judges were way too hard on this undeniably talented kid before, I absolutely loathed Sunday’s cringeworthy “super-jazzy” remake of one of Elton John’s most beloved ballads. Danielle took way too many liberties with the iconic melody and showed off with way too many runs, and then she punctuated the whole mess with a really wonky note towards the end. While Katy loved this performance, bizarrely, I think Danielle got too inside her head, tried way too hard, and ultimately blew it. “I heard you thinking,” Lionel noted, telling Danielle to “get your brain out of the performance” next time. But I don’t know if there will be a next time.
Emyrson Flora, “Angels Like You”
The season’s youngest contestant with one of the season’s more mature voices, 16-year-old Emyrson delivered a big, bold, self-assured performance of Miley Cyrus’s Plastic Hearts power ballad. Luke declared this one of his favorite performances of the entire season, Lionel called Emyrson a “star” with a “future in this business,” and Katy said she was “vibrating on a whole different level.” I truly think Emyrson is Season 20’s dark horse. And if she keeps this up, she could go from dark horse to frontrunner.
Dan Marshall, “Heaven”
Dan wanted to play his guitar, but both the judges and Jimmie advised him not to rely on that “crutch,” so he ditched the axe in the end — and was just as lackluster and wooden as ever. Not even serenading his girlfriend in the audience could coax any charisma or passion from this vanilla dude. Ironically, Katy later admitted that Dan probably would have been better off playing guitar after all, saying she could “feel the stiffness” and nervousness. Luke agreed that Dan let his nerves “tank” his performance and diplomatically told Dan, “Some of the big notes at the end… miiiight not be your lane.” But people will probably vote for this generic country-crooning football player anyway. Sigh. “It was not your best performance, but I don’t think it hurt you either,” Luke shrugged.
Jacob Moran, “In My Blood”
Jacob is a technician who possesses one of this season’s strongest and purest male voices — Luke described this performance as “high-level singing” — but a great voice may not be enough. Jacob has gotten a less-than-generous edit this season, and he doesn’t have the huge personality to match his huge pipes. However, he did deliver a solid, connected rendition of this overdone Shawn Mendes anthem and received a standing ovation from the judges. I’m not sure if this is the end of the road for Jacob, but since he got cut in Hollywood when he was on Idol two years ago, at least he made it to Hawaii this time.
Doing her second Rascal Flatts song of season but ditching the “safety blanket” of her own guitar, Huntergirl gave a fun, feisty performance that seemed to delight Luke, her biggest fan on the panel. She did come across like a little star, giving off Lauren Alaina vibes, and Katy told her, “You know how to work the crowd. People want to party with you. I want to party with you!” But you know, this show isn’t called American Partier. I don’t think Huntergirl — after all her hype as Season 20’s first platinum ticket recipient, disappointingly followed by a surprisingly shaky Hollywood Week — should have gone with such a lightweight, throwaway party song at this crucial stage of the game.
Nicolina Bozzo, “Elastic Heart”
Singing Sia is rarely easy — but Nicolina sure made it look that way! Damn! I can see why producers gave this Adele-in-training the pimp spot on Sunday’s episode. This was glorious. Luke called Nicolina “one of the best, if not the best, singers in the competition,” and a beaming Lionel told her, “You can handle the stage like you were born on it. … One of my favorites in the whole competition is you. You are a star.”
Next week, two of these singers will be eliminated, along with two singers from Monday’s dozen, leaving us with the top 20 semifinalists who will compete on the 100% live shows kicking off April 18. So, who’s in jeopardy from this first batch? I say Jay, Danielle, Scarlet, and Jacob should be the most worried, although no one (other than probably the peerless Nicolina and Jimmie Allen’s disciple Mike) is totally safe. We’ll find out these 12 singers’ fates next Sunday, but before then, tune in Monday the 11th for the rest of the top 24’s performances.
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