American Idol: where would country music be without it?

From Carrie Underwood to Kellie Pickler, the talent show unearthed a plethora of country music talents until The Voice came along and took up its mantle

Fox executives announced on Monday that the network’s one-time ratings juggernaut American Idol would officially conclude after its 15th season next year. The news was hardly a shock for fans of the show. After years of consistent ratings decline, a constantly rotating judges’ panel that never quite recovered from Simon Cowell’s departure, and a marketplace flooded with rival reality singing competitions like The Voice, American Idol was well past its prime. Even so, for an Idol junkie like me (I’ve watched the show since season one, when Kelly Clarkson was crowned America’s newest pop princess), there was more than a little heartache in the announcement.

American Idol, despite its detractors, has launched true superstars. This is something that the US versions of The Voice and The X-Factor (with the recent exception of budding pop supergroup Fifth Harmony) – not to mention Rising Star, Duets, Rock Star etc – have not been able to achieve, and it’s always given Idol an edge in the credibility department. Of course, not every Idol contestant has reached Clarkson’s heights of success, but artists like Ruben Studdard, Jordin Sparks, Fantasia Barrino, Chris Daughtry, David Cook, Adam Lambert, Kris Allen, Jennifer Hudson, Phillip Phillips and David Archuleta have found legitimate pop success with platinum singles and/or albums, even if their mainstream fame was sometimes short-lived. Perhaps no Idol alumnus has been more ubiquitously successful than Carrie Underwood, country music’s most successful female star at the moment.

With four multi-platinum albums, 19 chart-topping singles (which DJ Earworm recently mashed up), gigantic endorsement deals with brands like Almay and Olay, and the plush gig of singing NBC’s Sunday Night Football theme in front of over 20 million viewers each week, Underwood is the jewel of the Idol brand: a stunning all-American girl with powerhouse vocal abilities and the sales to back up her talent. She is the perfect winner of American Idol, embodying the show’s diamond-in-the-rough conceit. She began her run as a timid and wide-eyed Oklahoma girl and evolved into a belting star, unafraid to take musical chances and career risks.

But Underwood isn’t the only country star that Idol has spawned. The show has had a disproportionate presence in Nashville for most of its run, beginning with Josh Gracin, a former marine who finished in fourth place during the show’s second season. Gracin scored three top five singles in the year after his Idol run, including the No 1 hit Nothin’ To Lose, a fast-rapping confection with a refrain – “Breaker breaker one-nine she’s a big old flirt” – that’s still rather charming a decade later.

Josh Gracin finished in fourth place but still managed three big singles.

In season five, a pair of North Carolina natives won over audiences. After an eighth place finish, Bucky Covington released a few hit singles to radio, and his hit I’ll Walk remains one of the most audaciously absurd story songs released to radio in recent memory. (In the song, a young woman rejects her boyfriend’s advances on the way home from prom, gets out of his car, and tells him: “I’ll walk.” She’s then promptly hit by a truck and forced to recover in a wheelchair, but she tells the doctors: “I’ll walk.” And in the end ... well, you just have to listen to believe it.)

That same season (when Idol was averaging over 30 million viewers a night), Kellie Pickler became a water cooler favorite with her ditzy antics, as she babbled over Simon Cowell’s critiques and mispronounced words like “salmon”. She parlayed her natural comic ability into a career that’s been one part TV star – she’s a very frequent guest on Ellen, a recent winner of Dancing With the Stars, and was a correspondent for The Tonight Show during Jay Leno’s tenure – and one part country musician.

After scoring with hits like Red High Heels and Best Days of Your Life, Pickler left behind her standard pop-country sounds and has evolved into a brassy traditionalist with a highly critically acclaimed album in 100 Proof, which unfortunately sold poorly. Pickler’s now signed on to star in a reality series about her life and career for CMT, to air later this year. She’s dropped all the dumb blonde routines and now comes across as even more likable for her candour and genuine spirit of independence. If she can couple the right radio singles with the airing of her new show, Pickler could easily become one of country’s leading ladies this year. Frankly, my fingers are crossed.

Kellie Pickler auditions for the show.

Season 10 brought Idol’s other big country acts: Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina, two then teenagers who faced off in the show’s season finale. McCreery, a deep-voiced crooner in the same vein as Josh Turner, ended up winning the show, and his debut album Clear as Day defied expectations by going platinum. McCreery followed up that disc with a far superior second album that launched the delightful single See You Tonight. In keeping with the responsible persona that won over grandmas across the country during his Idol run, McCreery is currently finishing college at North Carolina State University and using his summer breaks to go on tour.

Alaina, meanwhile, is working on a follow-up to her minor-hit debut, Wildflower, and the vocal and emotional maturity she has lately communicated is miles beyond where she was during her time on Idol. Alaina is, for me, one of the most intriguing women preparing new music in Nashville. She’s spoken openly about the family drama (namely, her father’s battle with alcoholism) that has delayed her second album’s progress, and if songs like Same Day Different Bottle are any indication, she could be sitting on a gold mine with her resulting output.

American Idol helped launch Lauren Alaina’s career when she was a teenager.

Beyond its individual success stories, Idol, in a broader sense, helped to make country music a staple of the reality genre. USA’s Nashville Star rose in Idol’s wake, and it showcased talented individuals like Miranda Lambert, Chris Young and Kacey Musgraves long before they broke into the mainstream. Today, The Voice has become the de-facto destination for country hopefuls as Idol has waned in popularity, and that’s primarily due to the massive appeal of coach Blake Shelton. Burgeoning stars like RaeLynn, Cassadee Pope and Danielle Bradbery all got their start on The Voice under Shelton’s mentoring, and The Voice has learned how to generate the same heartland appeal that Idol once understood in how it presents its contestants to the public. It doubles down on family tales and sob stories, presenting its contestants a lot like the subjects in a country song. It’s a key component of the show’s success.

Even as Idol prepares to say farewell, its enduring effect on the pop culture landscape – and specifically in country music – will be felt for as long as its alumni continue to succeed.


Grady Smith

The GuardianTramp

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