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Round of 9: Country - April 4

American Idol... Final nine... Country night... Here we go already... Ryan, who decides, hey, I'm going to have a full-on beard, is ready, as are the judges.

But there's more to it than just that, as the AI suits have enlisted the help of one Kenny Rogers. With hits like "The Gambler," "Lady," "Through the Years", and "She Believes in Me", he's one of the few country-pop crossover stories that didn't end in a backlash.

"There's such an honesty in this music that once you hear it, and once you get it, you can't walk away from it. The ultimate country song has a story, paints a picture of where you are, and drops you off at the end with an emotion of some sort." Sorry, Kenny, but for me, usually it's one of despair. Unless it comes from a select few. Ronnie Milsap... Johnny Cash... Shania Twain... You...

But the real test this week... Telling the story.

First up to bat is Taylor Hicks, whom Kenny couldn't get a read from, as he isn't sure about whether or not he likes "Country Roads" (John Denver).

What they say: Randy thought the song choice was good, but the vocal was just okay. "I didn't see you exude your personality." Paula thinks that this song didn't allow him to shine as a person. Simon thought it was safe, boring, lazy, and sounding like he chose that song 10 seconds ago. In that order.

What we say: It's good, but I've seen better. And the song is a bit too much for Taylor's high register. But still, it's not bad once he gets into it. And this is one of those songs that, you know, less is more. And the lack of movement punctuates that.

After Nigel Lythgoe gets two seconds to say "I love you, Ryan" (awkward moment... one of many), Mandisa has the challenge to articulate every word in Shania Twain's "Any Man of Mine".

What they say: Randy thought the song choice was weird, but showed personality at the end. "The last five seconds were great." Paula uses the phone-book analogy. Simon thought the song was horrible. "It was fun, it was cutesy, but I liked the four seconds afterwards."

What we say: Stage persona gets a 10, vocal gets a 4.5. This was very un-Mandisa. She took absolutely no initiative to make the vocal hers. And that's going to hurt her in my book.

What Simon says to Ryan: "Lose the beard."

Next, soul singer Elliott Yamin gets a chance to go at Garth Brooks with "If Tomorrow Never Comes", doing what Chris did a couple of weeks ago... then again, no one has ever heard of Joose before. Their version from 1996 is actually decent. The remix is better if you like guitar chords, but anyway.... Kenny wants Elliott to make them cry.

What they say: Randy loves the song, partly because he produced it, and thought he brought it down tonight. Paula calls him a breath of fresh air. "You know you're great, but you have that reckless abandon. You stay true to who you are." Simon thought it was a good song choice, albeit safe and hesitant. "It was the best so far, but you're going to have to do better than that."

What we say: Yep... It's the Joose version. I don't know if Elliott ever listened to it, but it matches dead on. If that got out, it could hurt him. But then again, I'm the only one who's ever heard of Joose, so he could be safe. Did he make anyone cry? The jury's still out there.

From Nashville, we go to Paris... Bennett, who changed her hair style... again. Kenny thinks she sings big, as she strives to prove it with LeAnn Rimes'/Trisha Yearwood's "How Do I Live".

What they say: Randy: "I can tell this was a tough song for you tonight. Great melodies are hard to sing. The front part was not good. By the middle, you got it. It was just alright." Paula calls Paris' powerhouse voice, but didn't see a connection with a song. "I saw it was a struggle." Simon disagrees. "I thought it was very good. Reminded me of, hold on, big cheer coming... Early Dionne Warwick, I thought."

What we say: Randy's right... and Simon's right. Started out shaky. But as the song goes on, we find that this was a dead-on song choice. Just right for her big voice. It's a power ballad at its heart after all. Even the big note was passable. Basically, Paris did what Mandisa couldn't... She could be the first R&B singer to pass muster at this country week. Wait, no, that was LaToya London. My bad.

Time for the Gambler to play Ace... Young. "Tonight I Wanna Cry" by Keith Urban, the song. "A great singer knows how to squeeze a note. Ace and this song is the best combination of music and singer of the whole bunch."

What they say: Randy thought it was nice, but boring. "The good thing for you, at the end, you showed a little falsetto. There's Ace." Paula thinks that he picked the right song. Simon agrees with Paula.

What we say: Wow... Kenny was right. Ace did good here. He played his strengths (for once), and turned out a decent performance. A couple of scratches here and there, but oh well...

Next, the main benefactor of this week, Kellie Pickler. Ryan calls her bluff on being way too naive. She swears that this is the real.

To which I say... "Hehehehyearight..."

"To hear Kellie sing 'Fancy' (Reba McEntire) is perfect for her."

What they say: Randy says that she's finally in her element. "This is your night, baby." Paula thought she could sink her teeth into this one. Simon: "I hated the song personally, but your performance was very good."

What we say: It's a good song choice, and it fits Kellie's sound, but it was way too bombastic. Reba is in that class up there, you know what I mean... and Kellie's just a rung short. The high and low registers are where she kills it. Everything else is fine.

Hi, Whoopi. Hi, Chris Rock.

Hi Chris Daughtry. "Chris is tackling a song that is not easy to start with, and he comes from a whole different place musically. It's going to go one place or another, but I think he cares enough to make something happen." He sings "I'm Gonna Love You Like Nobody Loves You" by Keith Urban.

What they say: Randy thought it was good for him to change it up. He enjoyed it. Paula saw versatility. Simon thought it was great to see a different side, BUT for the past two weeks, all the contestants have been choosing safe songs. "I think the audience at home deserve better than that."

What we say: Well, you wanted something different. You got it. And Chris actually pulled it off. Except... EXCEPT with that bass line. But hey, it didn't take away.

Katharine McPhee loves country music, but it's not really what I do. She needs a bluesy feels. She goes with "Bringing Out the Elvis" by Faith Hill.

What they say: Randy liked it. "Very nice." Paula says "That's your niche. You're sexy, hot, cool." Simon:... "I don't know what to say, it's very peculiar." Post script: Simon hates country music.

What we say: Ms. McFever... Welcome back. I think you might have caused more than a few ladies to start shaking in their boots. Namely Mandisa and Kellie.

Closing the show is Bucky Covington with "Best I Ever Had" by Gary Allan. He needs to over-enunciate without missing a beat. Can he?

What they say: Randy said it started pitchy, but it came together. Paula: "Wear that hat proud." Simon thought it was okay.

What we say: You were outsung by your rock class, your country class, and you were in trouble to begin with. I wouldn't be surprised if this, albeit the best you ever did, was your last performance. And yes, it did start pitchy.

So there you go. It wasn't the best week, but it was better than last week. The benefactors benefited, and the real artists came out of the woodwork.

Kenny Rogers: Elliott, Paris, Ace, Kellie, Chris, Katharine
Brad Paisley (with John Mayer on "Why Georgia"... Good, but not great): Taylor
Larry the Cable Guy: Mandisa, Bucky

But what will you do tonight? The rest of the crew has your result next time.


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