Before we break down last night’s performances, we need to discuss next week’s double elimination: It couldn’t come at a better time. Despite what NBC seems to think, it’s not fun to watch the judges rip into contestants for not being “country.” It actually undermines the judges, who had a say in choosing the finalists. If you think Coffey (pictured) is faking it, that means he fooled you, John Rich — assuming you put him on the show because you thought he’d actually be a great country artist and not because he’d be good TV. Just like I hope y’all weren’t so desperate to cast someone from the USS Kitty Hawk that you welcomed likable Tommy Stanley to the show, even though you could tell from Day One he had to work too hard to sound country.
Ashlee Hewitt: Mini-Jewel opened the show on family night so we could see her tearful reunion with her mega-clan, including her father who returned from Iraq for the occasion. Ashlee chose Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” and did a decent job countryfying it (though that’s not hard with her accent and the phrase small town girl in the lyrics). She was worried about playing the piano to start the song, and I’m not sure why. Those notes are pretty repetitive, no? I thought the judges were too kind when critiquing her vocals. She made me cringe on the long notes because you could see in her face that she was praying she’d hit them. John acknowledged that she needs to start a song as well she finishes it, while Jeffrey Steele told her that she needs to stay focused and not let boys distract her (what does he know that we don’t?). Her second song, more like a snippet, really, was the Kris Kristofferson-penned ballad “Help Me Make it Through the Night.” John said she sounded like a modern-day Tammy Wynette. Hmmm. I don’t think there’s anything extraordinary about Ashlee’s voice, but I do think it’s commercial. I can see why she’d excite him as a producer.
Coffey: Am I the only one who thinks there’s a place for this Texan’s smooth runs in country music? I know some of you remembered him auditioning for American Idol — and I guess someone finally told John about that, because after Coffey’s performance of Hank Williams’ “Hey Good Lookin’,” John told him that’s the show he should be on. A cowboy hat doesn’t make you country, he said. You can’t fake it. It’s not entirely fair to criticize Coffey for doing pop song after pop song in previous weeks, especially when one of those weeks was branded “Pop Goes Country” night. But yes, it is suspicious that he chose “Hey Good Lookin’ ” and John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” when those are two songs that 9 out of 10 non-country fans could hum. Coffey defended himself, saying the population of his hometown is 1,100 including sheep, that he cleaned rabbits with his dad, and that he knows hurt (having lost his mother and being a single dad). Jewel was right: We need to hear him sing a ballad that makes us feel that. I actually thought “Country Roads” had some conviction and rewound to hear it again. It took guts to sing that song right after being told you weren’t country. (It also took cojones for poor Katie Cook to talk to Coffey’s family in the audience after hearing the judges’ initial comments. Awkward!) Again, I wonder what the judges see during the week that doesn’t make it into the pre-performance montages.
Tommy Stanley: The Navy man won the award for the sweetest reunion. Not for his shocked face when three of his fellow crewmen walked out onstage, having traveled halfway around the world to watch Jeffrey find one semi-nice thing to say about their friend (he compensated for hitting a bum note). That’s a close second. He hadn’t seen his parents in a year and a half, and his adorable father couldn’t control the tears — or the offering of advice. Dad hammered home what Jewel said: He had to make Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” sound country. It did. More so than his first number, Rascal Flatts’ “God Bless the Broken Road,” which was his weakest performance to date. (Couldn’t Jewel have told him that a ballad was all wrong for him? She told us she missed his swagger — did she tell him that when he chose the song?)
Pearl Heart: Okay, so Jeffrey is choosing songs for his groups? Is that because they’re the youngest in the competition or because he’s a control freak? He picked Restless Heart’s “I”ll Still Be Loving You,” an emotional ballad that he saw as a defining moment — if they pulled it off. Jeffrey broke down while presenting the song to the trio — he was thinking of the son he’s lost — but he held it together during the performance. The sisters hit most of the harmonies, which left me pondering their sleek makeovers more than their voices. (They’re definitely working the legs now.) Lead singer Courtney looked less awkward this week — starting on a stool for the ballad helped, so did standing behind a six-string on LeAnn Rimes’ “One Way Ticket (Because I Can).” Just give her time.
Melissa Lawson: I liked seeing her rock a guitar on Martina McBride’s “This One’s For the Girls,” but the staged facial expressions still get to me. She’ll be in the recording studio with John whether or not she wins this contest (the man was out of his seat). He said this is her title to lose, and that she needs to keep her nerves under control. He thought they got the better of her on the second song, Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” but I actually liked it better.
Shawn Mayer: I’m pullin’ for my girl Shawn, but she’s got me nervous. She wanted to show her soft, feminine side, and opted for Faith Hill’s “Breathe.” I didn’t buy it. She should have gone with something pleading like Gretchen Wilson’s “Come to Bed” (cowritten by Rich). John was “shocked” by how well she pulled off “Breathe,” but said she needed to be consistent if she had any hope of hanging around in this competition. Proving his point, he thought she blew her second song, Randy Travis’ “Forever And Ever, Amen.” It wasn’t memorable, but it wasn’t offensive. I’d love to see John pick her song next week and give her a fighting chance. If it’s not too late.
Gabe Garcia: Gabe’s goal was to show that he actually has a personality. He almost succeeded. He tackled Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” He sounded fine, but he still looked stiff to me. And not in a hot George Strait way. He’s still too nervous. Jewel told him he needs to flirt with the crowd, so after his second song, Strait’s “The Fireman” (predictable), which had John and Jeffrey air-fiddling and air-guitaring, he muttered something about adding another flame to Jewel’s fire. She laughed at him. Maybe he’s not ready to be a lothario. Just relax and sing. You’ll also be in the studio with John whether or not you win, son.
Alyson Gilbert: Just when I started to like Alyson — because she flipped John off during her mentoring session — she leaves. Jewel absolutely tee’d off on Alyson after she tackled Trisha Yearwood’s “She’s in Love With the Boy,” noting the return of her beauty-pageant poppin’ eyes. “I need you to go away for a little while. I need you to find some soul and some heart. I need you to stand up here for a reason and sing, ‘cause I don’t feel anything….” I don’t feel anything, but unlike Jewel, I don’t take it as a personal insult. Sheesh. I think Jewel was trying to express the judges’ frustration with Alyson, but for once, John was the clear one: Alyson has moments of brilliance, but moments aren’t enough; she needs to be brilliant from beginning to end and it’s shame that she hasn’t figured out how to do that yet. One final observation: Jewel said Alyson doesn’t take advice, but I do believe she took Jewel’s tip about watching how Reba McEntire works the stage. Anyone else see a little Reba in her posturing last night?
Laura & Sophie: I don’t know what performance Jewel was watching, but I did not see Sophie, the taller, younger one without braces, almost unravel and cry mid-song! Seriously, I rewound. She looked fine. Jeffrey wanted them to do something young, so he chose Katrina and the Waves’ “Walkin’ on Sunshine” for them and had them start in an almost trudging Donnas style before picking up the beat. The first half of the song was definitely better, but it wasn’t the disaster some of the judges thought it was. Or even as bad as the second song, Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You,” which definitely was… off. John said the girls are too young and sweet for the business, that the worst thing that could happen to them now would be winning the show. I don’t think it’s fair for him to compare them to Taylor Swift. If I’m remembering correctly, she had some shaky live TV performances when she started out. But I do think he’s ultimately right: Their sugar and spice routine needs time to bake. The talent is there.
So, who’s got your vote now? What footage do you think NBC is hiding from us? (Laura and Sophie fighting?) And what is your position on Coffey?