'American Idol' Recap: Blond-Haired Top 3 Revealed After Night Of Carrie Underwood Songs (Critic's Take)

ABC/Craig Sjodin
Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie on American Idol.

American Idol went to Nashville this past week so the Top 5 could learn some tips from a pro.

Now, was Carrie Underwood up for swinging by and performing her latest single on the series that made her a household name in 2005? Get that promo, girl. Was she thrilled about going the extra mile and mentoring the remaining handful of contestants so they could perform her own songs in the first hour? That semi-detached look she wears throughout the episode might just be all we need to know about that particular topic.

Once more, the live voting is a go from coast to coast as soon as the show hits the air. And this is a big one, as these five hopefuls will become the three who head to next week’s two-part finale.

Another important note: It’s Mother’s Day, so the contestants’ second song of the evening will be one dedicated to their respective moms. Oddly, Katy Perry’s madre is not present for the first time in what seems like a long while. In her absence, Ryan Seacrest's dear ol’ ma hits the stage, Luke Bryan’s mom also makes a surprise visit, Lionel Richie’s sister is present and Katy wears a Cher wig.

Michael J. Woodard

Michael in Nashville? Meeting Carrie Underwood? Singing “Flat on the Floor”? You gotta roll with the punches in showbiz, kid. Carrie seems to take a shine to the Philly crooner. When she asks him how sassy he’s going to be on stage, he admits that he’s going to “bring a lot of sassafras.” And that he does (along with a lot of denim). Michael struts his way through the first of his two triumphant performances of the night, which prompts Katy to say, “There’s no one like you in this competition; in the music industry; on planet Earth.”

Country music may be the way to America’s heart (and vote) in 2018, but Michael also tackles another sacred genre for his second song of the night. He dedicates “Still I Rise,” by gospel queen Yolanda Adams, to his sweet mom, who cheers her son on from the audience. The performance is a measured balance of restraint and soulfulness that gets the audience on its feet for Michael by the end. Sigh. I’m really gonna be bummed if this guy is eliminated tonight.

Gabby Barrett

Carrie Junior working with Carrie Underwood is the biggest no-brainer of the season. Gabby states the obvious by telling her idol that she’s looked up to the country superstar her entire life. Pittsburgh diva-in-the-making Gabby selects Underwood’s Carnival Ride smash “Last Name,” and what can you say -- it's a perfect performance. The whole thing is also eerily a bit All About Eve-esque, watching the young upstart take advice (and music) from her veteran hero then nailing it on stage.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Gabby’s Mother’s Day song choice is Whitney Houston’s “I Have Nothing” from The Bodyguard. Child, that is an appropriate title, because Miss Barrett’s got nothing on Whitney. (The only words I write down in my notes are “Weak, girl. Weak.”) I tell these kids every time, but they never listen: Don’t touch Whitney. Don’t touch Celine. Don’t touch Adele. Stick with anything else, like Carrie Underwood. Or Ace of Base.

Cade Foehner

Texas rocker Cade has likely done future damage to his vocal cords by growling his way through this entire season. Finally someone else has the spurs to call him out on it. His first song is Carrie’s “Undo It.” She says to the camera that Cade has the “tendency to be on level 10” a lot, which is Carriespeak for “tone it down a few notches, cowboy.” Cade heeds Carrie’s wise words for his performance, to positive results. “Focus a little more on that subtlety,” Katy says. No time like the present to stop the faux-flirting and be a judge.

Like all the other contestants, Cade pens a handwritten letter to his mom, who reads it aloud in front of him in one of Idol’s trademark tearjerker moments. He then sings Lynyrd Skynyrd staple “Simple Man” on stage, with Carrie’s tip about doing a slow build clearly still ringing in his ears.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson

Lionel admits at some point during the night that all three judges agreed backstage they must now become more critical of the contestants, and not treat them with kid gloves in the lead-up to the finale. Tip for next season, gang: Try doing that beginning around -- oh, I don’t know -- the audition process?

Despite this mandate, Lionel can’t bring himself to follow through with the tough love, even when country teen Caleb gives a blasé performance of Underwood’s “So Small.” Katy, at least, steps in and says, “I think that some people on the show are already physically out-performing you. I know you’re doing your best, but once you leave this nest of American Idol, you’ve gotta flap those wings a little bit harder, honey, when it comes to just working that crowd.” Well, damn. Why hasn’t Katy been wearing that Cher wig for the past two months?

Caleb next dedicates Jamey Johnson deep cut “Stars In Alabama” to his mom. Yes, the song choice is on-point for him. But Caleb is gonna do what Caleb is gonna do at this point.

Maddie Poppe

During rehearsal with Carrie, curly-haired Maddie is stressing over every note of “I Told You So,” a Randy Travis tune later covered by Underwood. Carrie flips her advice to Cade for Maddie and tells her she shouldn’t hold back at all while on stage. Just like that, everything falls into place for the golden-haired contestant. Luke praises Maddie’s mesmerizing performance by telling her she’s the one amongst the group who truly tells stories with her singing.

For her Mother’s Day pick, Maddie turns out a jaw-dropping, stripped-down rendition of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows” that not only stuns everyone watching (including yours truly), but also the singer herself, who chokes up on the final line. “Papa” Lionel practically pleads with the viewers to vote for Maddie.

Results

All non-blonds are ushered to the exit. Good luck out there, Michael and Cade, but it's Gabby, Maddie and Caleb headed for the top three. I can’t pretend I didn’t see this coming, given that three weeks back I wrote, “Suddenly the Top 10 is starting to look very blond-haired and blue-eyed, y’all.”

Looking ahead: I’m a Pittsburgh boy myself, but my heart is now with Maddie. Sorry, Gabby. Of course, I have a feeling my heart will be squashed with a Classic Western boot heel during next week’s finale, which kicks off Sunday (May 20) and wraps the following night.