They don't call it Music City for nothing. On Thursday night, "American Idol" auditions returned to Nashville for only the second time and brought out plenty of top-notch talent, along with a few moments of comic relief, naturally, starting with chirping dental assistant Christine McCafferey, who butchered Lee Ann Womack's "I Hope You Dance" in due time.
No matter, Judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler were in exceptionally good spirits as they took their seats at the famed Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. First to be sent through to Hollywood: a pair of exes, Rob Bolin and Chelsee Oaks, who despite the fact that they're no longer together, look longingly into each other's eyes as they duet the Bee Gees' classic "To Love Somebody." Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova (of "Once" and the Swell Season famedom) they're not, but there is a sweet vulnerability to their style of singing, even more evident during their solo turns.
And for the polar opposite, Nashville presents Allen Lewis, who delivered Lynyrd Skynyrd's "A Simple Man" with about as much nuance as a concrete truck. Albeit, a good-natured one. Next up: a beauty queen. Stormi Henley was a Miss Teen winner who's hobnobbed with the likes of Donald Trump, but "Idol" is no talent portion of a beauty pageant, the winner gets a real recording contract. Does she have what it takes? Lopez doesn't think Stormi's ready, but -- no surprise, here - the men disagree and she's handed the golden ticket.
Video: Stormi Henley's "American Idol" Audition
More promising is Jackie Wilson, a big belter from Nashville, and Adrienne Beasley, the African American daughter of white parents who adopted her when she was two. The sob story always helps, but Beasley didn't need it -- her voice said it all. You could not say the same of Kameela Meeks and LaToya "Younique" Moore, however. Both suffered from DIS -- Delusional Idol Syndrome -- a common affliction in these cattle call rounds (though it's worth noting that the mass auditions and the judges' critiques do not actually happen at the same time).
Fortunately, successive turns by the likes of Paul McDonald, Jimmie Allen and Danny Tate proved to be more memorable, if brief, while Matt Dillard, clad in overalls and a straw hat, surprised all by choosing Josh Groban's "You Raise Me Up" as his audition song. But it was all leading to the grand finale: 15-year-old Lauren Alaina, who delivered an impressive rendition of Faith Hill's "Like We Never Loved At All" that had the judges floored.
You could say Alaina had a head start: before her audition aired, executive producer Nigel Lythgoe had already declared the Rossville, Georgia native a frontrunner by comparing her to Kelly Clarkson. And it didn't hurt that she had dedicated the experience to her cousin who suffered a brain tumor, and for whom she had also organized a fundraiser. Plus, she held her own on Aerosmith's "I Don't Wanna Miss a Thing," even with Steven Tyler singing along! The girl's got heart, and isn't that ultimately what "Idol" is all about?
Next week, "Idol" heads to Austin, Texas as the contestants inch one step closer to Hollywood week.