Is 'American Idol' Country -- And Pop -- Music's Modern Star-Making Machine?

From Carrie Undewood to Gabby Barrett -- and potentially Chayce Beckham, too -- 'American Idol' makes pop superstars

There may be no better way to underscore how much Americans love three chords and the truth more than anything else in modern popular music than in studying how well the genre performs on American Idol.

Sunday evening's victory by 24-year-old Southern Californian Chayce Beckham marks the sixth time in television program American Idol's nearly two-decade history that a country music artist has won the four-month-long, viewer-and-celebrity judge voted singing competition. In examining a music industry experiencing a multitude of dynamic shifts in the past 20 years, the ability for Idol -- and its long, deep, and lucrative association with country music -- to both remain a constant and continue to provide the genre a superstar pipeline is an impressive feat and worth deeper examination. Idol marries well with country, and recent country trends could foretell Idol continuing to dominate how the genre discovers and supports its superstars. Ultimately, the deep connective tie country music broadcast via the program makes with its viewers shows the TV program's incredible vitality.

"As fans know, contestants can never go wrong by turning to country music, a genre that is historically a favorite among singing competition viewers — and generally the only format that continues to regularly provide a road to success, from Season 4’s Carrie Underwood to Season 16’s Gabby Barrett," says the Washington Post's Emily Yahr in a review of the 19th season's just-completed final episode.

Regarding Underwood, the Season Four Idol winner was seen by an average of literally one in ten homes occupied by all Americans for 32 weeks of 2005. Her staying power via Idol made her (given sheer broadcast reach alone) a household name and has keyed a career that has seen achievements including seven Grammy Awards, 85 Billboard number-one singles, and 65 million albums sold. In total, she's the number-one digital-selling country artist ever and the best-selling American Idol competitor ever. In a February 2021 interview, Underwood told Idol Season One winner (and country-adjacent performer) Clarkson that, without Idol's influence upon her career, she "wouldn’t be doing anything I’m doing now."

Of course, as with most anything, the idea that success is a fleeting notion could be expanded to American Idol. 19 years past its debut, the television and musical marketplaces are vastly different than ever before. However, country music artists springboarding to unprecedented acclaim remains a constant. Though not an American Idol winner, Season 16 contestant Gabby Barrett has -- even in an era where DVR recording and streaming are more prevalent than live TV and physical music purchasing -- recently extended Underwood's legacy as a household name and top-selling success.

Upon the release of her American Idol-performed single "Inside Your Heaven" and premiere album Young Hearts, Carrie Underwood won -- between the years 2005-2006 -- eight Billboard Music Awards. Similarly, Gabby Barrett -- upon the release of debut single "I Hope" and first album Goldmine -- recently was nominated for nine 2021 Billboard Music Awards, winning three (Top Country Female Artist, Top Country Song, and Top Collab).

Even deeper, take a longer look into Idol competitions of years past, and more of modern mainstream country's roots take form. In 2011, Scotty McCreery and Lauren Alaina finished in first and second, respectively. As well, 2017's winner was Laine Hardy. Moreover, artists currently emerging like Willie Jones (among many) have unsuccessfully auditioned in the past to be in the final grouping on the program.

Idol's 2021 finale showcased a fascinating picture of country's impact upon the program 20 years later.

Two of the program's three judges -- Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan -- have standout country roots. Richie's famous as the writer of Kenny Rogers' 1981 smash "Lady," while Bryan has sold 75 million albums in a career that has existed as long as Idol itself. Joining them too is Katy Perry, whose roots in oftentimes country-adjacent Christian music are essential to her career. As well, Luke Combs, Mickey Guyton, and the previously-mentioned Luke Bryan performed, with eventual Idol winner Chayce Beckham offering a cover rendition of Chris Stapleton’s “Fire Away,” plus his own mainstream debut single, "23."

"You sound like the heart of America," Perry told Beckham after he sang “What Brings Life Also Kills” by Texas-based country band Kolton Moore & The Clever Few in Idol's early rounds of its 19th season.

"Sometimes, while watching the American Idol finale, it’s difficult to predict who will win," wrote Emily Yahr in her previously noted Washington Post article. However -- as has been consistently seen over American Idol's history -- when an artist can galvanize "the heart of America" via country music, it's proved to have an incredible, long-lasting, and star-making connection.

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