American Idol and country music. Country music and American Idol. Two things that seemingly shouldn't go well together, but, for one reason or another, have enjoyed a remarkably successful symbiotic relationship since the show debuted a decade (I know, I know...make anyone feel old?) ago. Country artists and a vast majority of country fans routinely lament the crossover between pop and country, and yet, how do we explain a show essentially searching for America's next big pop star producing a number of viable country artists and one superstar? Let's take a quick look at AI's notable country alumni: Josh Gracin (8 country top 40 hits), Bucky Covington (5 country top 40 hits), Kellie Pickler (8 country top 40 hits), and of course, Carrie Underwood (too many awards to list). In addition, we've recently seen Kelly Clarkson, America's original Idol, branch out into country music with a hit duet with Jason Aldean ("Don't You Wanna Stay"). Obviously, the roots between AI and country music run deep, and so we're left to ponder the future of American Idol's first country winner since Carrie Underwood, Scotty McCreery.
First, a brief recap of McCreery's American Idol run for those who don't watch the show. A 16-year-old from North Carolina, McCreery possesses a beautiful, clear baritone, very similar to Josh Turner. Of course its no surprise then that McCreery chose Turner's "Your Man" for his audition followed by a brief cover of Travis Tritt's "Put Some Drive in Your Country." Right away McCreery established three important things: 1) His voice was starkly different than everyone else on the show, 2) He had the range to tackle a wide variety of songs (in fact, in many ways it was when McCreery went to his upper range that he was most successful), and 3) He had a firm grasp of his niche on the show. After his initial audition, McCreery hit a few more good country covers but ultimately left something to be desired. He seemed to shy away from some of the songs that would have been obvious home-runs for him -- songs by Randy Travis, Johnny Cash, and some of the other great country baritones. Even during "Elvis" week, McCreery passed up the obvious choices for "That's All Right," a song that did little to display his range. It was utterly confounding that McCreery left all these songs in the closet, opting again and again for light-weight tunes, while displaying a penchant for over-the-top facial expressions during the performance.
(Yep, I'm completely hammered right now.)
His final performance (and debut single), "I Love You This Big," defies all available adjectives -- honestly, there are now words that can accurately sum up how poor this song is. The lyrics are a joke and the production is incredibly boring. The song itself is virtually unlistenable. Here you have the opportunity, on the most watched episode of the season, with an audience of millions and millions of viewers, to display one of the most promising talents ever to pass through the show and this is the song they chose? I couldn't believe it then and I can't believe it now.
So we're left to consider where Scotty McCreery goes from here. The song itself has sold well (more a credit to Scotty's strong teenage-girl following and their mastery of Itunes than the song's actual quality), but has, unsurprisingly, petered out on its rise up the country charts. Now, McCreery heads out on the American Idol tour, but when he returns, he'll likely continue work on his debut album, one that is remarkably important to his place in country music and his future viability as a country artist. Already country radio has scoffed at Scotty's credibility as a true country artist (but honestly, how often do they get it right? Carrie Underwood followed the same path and what was her debut single again? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller? That's right, it was "Inside Your Heaven," another piece of unlistenable garbage that had zero impact on her future as a country star.) The most important thing Scotty can take from Carrie's success (and they are not as different as you might suspect -- both were young, runaway, winners with lots of vocal talent who embraced their country roots from the very first audition) is a willingness to chart your own course and break from the American Idol safety net. The show likes to market its own talent -- its the reason the winner traditionally received a record deal with a major label -- and for that reason, its easy to stay within the comforts provided by the American Idol team from start to finish (writers, producers, managers, etc.) Underwood shunned the push towards pop (although she has released many, many crossover hits) and instead pumped out hit after country hit which showcased her vocal talent and wowed country purists to the point that she is now the undisputed leading lady in country music. Scotty has similar ability -- his unique voice alone places him in elite and unique company -- and his age gives him an expanded audience to work with. McCreery would be wise to release a debut album heavy on the country, light on the pop, full of booming baritone ballads, a few up-tempos to showcase his range and maybe one or two collaborations with a Josh Turner or a Randy Travis. He's got the talent to be a major player for years, but the key here for McCreery is not to over think it, stick to your country roots, and for God's sakes, lay off the booze.