OFFSTAGE: American Idol Kickoff Is a Little Bit Country

(CMT Offstage keeps a 24/7 watch on everything that’s happening with country music artists behind the scenes and out of the spotlight.)

I look for the country music in everything, especially, the season premiere of American Idol . Wednesday night (Jan. 18) was the beginning of season 11, with auditions in Savannah, Ga. The three judges were ready. Some 9,000 people came to sing. And here’s who stood out to me:

Phillip Phillips didn’t sing any country songs during his audition, but if he won tomorrow, I could see him rising to Carrie Underwood-like fame immediately. Maybe faster.

Stephanie Renae had just turned 15, but she did a grown-up version of Underwood’s “Inside Your Heaven,” and she did it well. I think I loved her for her song choice more than anything because it makes me think her country side may go pretty deep.

Lauren Mink from Kentucky did “Country Strong,” from the Gwyneth Paltrow/Tim McGraw film of the same name. “You sure are,” said judge Steven Tyler after she ended on the lyric, “‘Cause I’m country strong.” And she said Sugarland is her favorite band. So points for that.

W.T. Thompson chose his dream of singing over getting a job, even though he has a wife who is six months pregnant. I’m not crazy about that gamble, but he did do a likeable-enough take on Little Big Town‘s “Boondocks.” And even though his vocals weren’t perfect, he made the cut because he promised to make the judges proud.

Alison makes her living loving country music. She's based in Chicago, but she's always leaving her heart in Nashville.