The TV singing competition American Idol has a rather systematic process of determining each season’s winner. First, judges whittle down the finalists through several competitive rounds. Then, the viewing public decides the winner through tallied texts, calls and online votes. But the route by which each contestant arrives from point A to point Idol is usually not so calculated. Oftentimes, their journey is as charming as the music itself, and sometimes equally surprising.
This year’s top 11 finalists from season 10 performed in Nashville Saturday evening (July 30) as part of the American Idol Live 2011 tour, entertaining the fans at the packed Bridgestone Arena. But prior to the night’s well-received show, this year’s winner Scotty McCreery, runner-up Lauren Alaina and finalist Paul McDonald shared their personal paths to national prominence with reporters.
“This is where I auditioned,” Alaina said looking around her. “Everything that has happened to me started in this building, literally.”
Just a little over a year ago, the 16-year-old Rossville, Ga., native began in the very same place where she was now fielding questions. She had tried weeks earlier to secure her place in front of the judges by trying out for Chattanooga Idol, a singing competition awarding the winner an audition directly in front of the judges and bypassing the lines to go straight for the (hopeful) golden ticket. Unfortunately for Alaina, she didn’t win. In fact, she didn’t even come close. She placed sixth.
“And the guy who won,” she said, “I watched him walk up to the table and not make it. And it scared me so bad.” She then turned to her mother and said, “Mom, let’s go. Let’s just leave. He beat me by five places. Let’s just get out of here.” But because of her mother’s reassurance and support, Alaina got back in line.
Also in line that day was a Nashville resident, 26-year-old Paul McDonald. He had been traveling on the road in his 16-passenger van, hitting the pavement, playing gigs with his band and showing off original tunes. He wasn’t that interested in a singing competition. But, because of his grandmother’s persistence to try out for the show, McDonald gave it a try, especially because he lived in nearby East Nashville and decided to make the short trek across the Shelby Street Bridge to appease her.
Truth be told, he sang “Tutti Frutti” as a joke, thinking he would be sent home right away. Instead, the first-round judges made him go home and learn Rod Stewart’s “Maggie May” and come back.
“I went home and learned it and I never expected a year later that I’d be singing that song every night for like four months,” he smiled. “So, it’s funny. People will come up to me in the hotel and they’re like, ’Hey, Maggie May guy! Sing that song!'”
Fast-forward a few days following Alaina and McDonald’s audition. A 17-year-old Garner, N.C. high school student named Scotty McCreery was about to take his turn in front of the judges. Trying out in Milwaukee, he sang Josh Turner’s “Your Man” in front of celebrity judges. What a colossal decision that turned out to be.
“I could have gone out there and sang country one week and sang Frank Sinatra one week to change it up and show I could do something different,” he said of his song choices on the show. “But that’s not what I wanted to do. I wanted to sing country music, and I wanted to stay true to my roots and what I grew up with. I did that and it worked out for me.”
Indeed. McCreery took home the title of American Idol with Alaina a close second as runner-up. McDonald would survive many of the cuts to later place eighth in the overall competition.
Since the show, McCreery and Alaina have both signed with Mercury Nashville/19 Recordings/Interscope and released debut singles with albums expected in the fall. McCreery’s single, “I Love You This Big,” written by Brett James, Esther Dean and Ronnie Jackson is charting at No. 17 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles Chart. Working with producer Mark Bright, known for his work with Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts, McCreery spent some of his off time while in Nashville recording the album.
“I look for songs that I can relate to so I can feel it and I can sing my heart out with it,” he said of the selection process. “I think through that, the audience that listens to the album [will] appreciate that and will feel it as well.”
“I’ve learned a lot and I still have plenty more to learn,” said the high school senior. “I’m young and this is pretty early for a teenager to get in this business. You’ve got to pick songs that relate to the audience, and you’ve got to do a lot of stuff behind the scenes to make things go right and to make the process smooth.”
For Alaina’s debut album, she’s working with producer Byron Gallimore, whose production credits include Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Phil Vassar. Alaina’s debut single, “Like My Mother Does,” a song penned by Nathan Chapman, Liz Rose and Nicole Williams, is a poignant tune about the resilient relationship between a mother and daughter. A song quite personal to Alaina since her mother has been by her side for each step of her American Idol voyage.
“I cried the first time I heard it just because my mom went through the whole experience with me and she kind of didn’t get any credit for it,” she said. “Every time I was upset or wanted to go home, she was always there to give me a hug. I felt like Scotty and I both had the advantage of our mom to be there.”
“I mean, of course, at points it could be a bit annoying because she’s always got her opinion,” she giggled. “But, her opinion matters more than anyone’s. Even though sometimes I disagree, she’s almost always right.”
McCreery, Alaina and McDonald join the rest of the finalists including Casey Abrams, Naima Adedapo, James Durbin, Stefano Langone, Jacob Lusk, Thia Megia, Haley Reinhart and Pia Toscano as they continue their 45-stop journey across the country, concluding the tour Sept. 10 in Rochester, N.Y.
“It’s something that every artist dreams of,” McCreery said, “touring the country and selling out arenas.”See photos of Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina backstage.