Nashville is the music capital of America, with undiscovered talent spilling out of every honky-tonk and busking on every street corner. But Thursday's "American Idol" auditions got off to a surprisingly shaky start at Music City's legendary Ryman Auditorium--with plenty of the usual delusionals we've come to expect from this crazy show. However, by the episode's end, the judges had found a few real Nashville stars...including one, Lauren Alaina, who just may win this whole darn thing.
Lauren Alaina - When this incredibly talented 15-year-old powerhouse started belting, I instantly thought, "Wow, they've found this year's Allison Iraheta." The judges took that thought one step further and basically declared her this year's WINNER. "I think we found The One today. We found her!" proclaimed Steven Tyler. And he may be right; I have to say, this girl impressed me, and if she's not at least in the top 10, I'll eat Steven's little hat. And I give her bonus props for having the nerve to challenge the four-times-her-age Aerosmith icon to an "I Don't Want To Miss A Thing" sing-off and then totally holding her own. My one gripe about Lauren? Her heartstring-tugging backstory about her cancer-stricken cousin. After Chris Medina's tearjerker from the night before, it sort of fell flat...and really, this girl didn't need a sob story to get ahead. She's just that good.
Rob Bolin & Chelsee Oaks - These two used to date. Now they don't. But they still live together, and sing together, and it's obvious that at least one of them (Rob, cough) still carries a torch for the other. However, Chelsee has a new boyfriend now, and for some reason she thought it was a good idea to bring him, AND Rob, to the "Idol" auditions. Awkward! But you know, Chelsee's new beau ought to feel a little threatened. Rob and Chelsee's lovely duet audition of the Bee Gees' "To Love Somebody," as they gazed into each other's eyes, proved these two can still make beautiful music together. (Their joint audition was actually better than their individual ones.) "You were one voice," Steven said. "Sometimes the deepest passion comes from friction." Both ex-lovebirds got golden tickets, after which Tyler ordered, "Get out of here and fall in love with each other all over again!" I'm rooting for either a romantic reconciliation during a late-night rehearsal in Hollywood...OR a drama-filled, "War Of The Roses"-style showdown. Come on, how fascinating would it be if these two squared off on finale night?
Paul McDonald - OK, I'm officially obsessed with this guy after only seeing him for maybe 13 seconds. He's cutely scruffy in a Kings Of Leon kind of way (he seriously looks like a lost Followill brother), and he knows his way around Rod Stewart's "Maggie May"? Sign me up. More screen time, please! I need more Paul McDonald in my life.
Adrienne Beasley - A sweet, soft-spoken African-American girl adopted by a white couple--something that raised quite a few eyebrows in her small Kentucky town--Adrienne had a nice backstory that I instantly gravitated towards. And I found her husky/twangy voice equally compelling when she crooned Lady Antebellum's "American Honey." Said Steven, "I hear something so special in your voice," before he and his fellow judges unanimously put her through. Maybe this girl could be the first black female pop-country star, a goal that whiny semifinalist Haeley Vaughn failed to achieve last year.
Matt Dillard - With his Dexy's Midnight Runners overalls and scrappy straw hat, this guy sure didn't look like an Idol. So I was VERY pleasantly surprised when he did a nicely countryish cover of, all things, Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up." When the judges hemmed and hawed over him and his image issues, Matt offered, "I can pretty up if you want to!" And so, he got through. Summon the makeover squad, stat! With a better haircut and spiffy new set of dunagrees, this guy could clean up nice and become a dark horse.
Jackie Wilson - Well, with a name hers (shared by one of the all-time R&B greats), this girl had to be good. And she was, in a Clarkson-meets-Bowersox sort of way. She nailed notes Jennifer Lopez probably never knew existed (not even with Auto-Tune!). "She sang that song like she wrote it!" Steven said in one of his increasingly frequent wise and lucid moments. This lady is definitely one to watch.
Stormi Henley - This former beauty pageant princess said she wanted to get through on her talent, not her looks. Good luck with that, Stormi. It was obvious from the way Steven's Botoxed brows cocked when this looker strutted into the audition room ("You look like you could be Miss Something," he cooed) that it wouldn't be her good-but-not-great voice that'd get her to Hollywood. Even Steven told Stormi she needed to belt it out a little more. But of course, Steven, and the other male judge, Randy Jackson, put her through anyway. Shocker.
THE BAD & THE FUNNY:
Christine McCaffrey - This squeakbox of a girl came to the show with honorable intentions of "making the universe a better place." If by "better," she meant "shriller"...well then, mission accomplished. She caterwauled a dog-whistle-decibel-level version of "I Hope You Dance," and I thought to myself, "I hope you don't sing, ever again." J.Lo, employing the condescending epithet "sweetie" in a most Kara DioGuardi-esque manner, suggested Christine try cartoon voiceover work instead. Christina just ignored this, then pretended to hear Steven tell her yes. Come on, I know S.Ty is hard to understand sometimes, but give me a break. No means no.
Allen Lewis - A "tattoo artist and many other things at the same time," this poor man's Bo Bice sang Skynyrd like a drunk trucker while pulling pained faces that made it look like he was giving birth sans epidural. But his cordial attitude when handling the judges' rejection was a master class in good sportsmanship and humility. So thanks, Allen. I hope other prospective rejects were watching you.
Kameela Merricks - I thought Kameela was going to be good. I thought wrong. She looked like a little star, but sounded like an escaped metal asylum patient screaming out Chaka Khan. More like Chaka Khan't! Steven advised her to practice more. He's apparently getting too nice in his old age, because no amount of practice could help this girl. Where was straight-shooting Simon Cowell when we needed him? At least Randy was willing to get mean, saying, "No. Just don't sing. Don't do it." I hope Kameela listened to Randy in this case.
LaToya "Younique " Moore - Diva alert! From the moment Younique announced, "People see a glow about me," breaking out her best Barbizon Modeling School poses in a quinceañera gown, then walking into the audition room holding ONE copy of her self-recorded CD for all three judges to share, I knew she'd be TV gold. "Somebody's ready for their closeup!" quipped J.Lo. Unfortunately, Younique's utterly unrecognizable Tamia cover was youniquely awful. That one CD? It was one too many.
So there you have it. Is this Lauren Alaina's competition to win, or is such a prediction a bit premature? Will anyone in "Idol's" next stop, Austin, be able to top her? Find out next week.