I’d be hard-pressed to name a better catalog of country music to choose from for American Idol than Dolly Parton’s. It’s deep with fantastic songs, and she’s recorded them in enough styles for them to be adapted to each contestant’s personal groove. That being said, now that Dolly night is over on Idol, some of those contestants fared far better than others. Though I must say I’m amazed we got through nine songs and no “9 to 5” or “Islands in the Stream.” Who wants to bet those will be the group numbers tomorrow?
Here’s a recap of the night. I’ll update it with videos when they become available.
Brooke White, “Jolene”
Aside from “I Will Always Love You”, this is probably the most covered Dolly Parton song. Dolly had an enormous country hit with it in 1974, and Olivia Newton-John had as a big an international pop hit with two years later. In the years since, it’s been covered by everyone from Mindy Smith to The White Stripes. Brooke White’s folksy style would seem a good fit for such a song, but the arrangement was too busy and she never quite connected with the song as a result. If it had just been her and the guitar, it would’ve been better. B-
David Cook, “Little Sparrow”
Great song, first of all. I was impressed he took the time to find it. His falsetto sounded great, it worked as a sorta-rock song, and he made it completely his own. One of the best of the night. A-
Ramiele Malubay, “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind”
Her performance had the same problem as Dolly’s original: a pop production with too many backing vocalists. She should’ve used the Emmylou Harris arrangment from Trio II, which stripped it down more. She spent the whole time trying to stay aligned with the backup singers and couldn’t let loose with the song. C
Jason Castro, “Travelin’ Thru”
Again, great song choice. He didn’t start off strongly with it, but he put a folk rock spin on it toward the end and injected some personality into his performance. He didn’t do anything new with it, really, but not much new needed to be done in the first place. What’s the point of reworking a song that most people don’t know in the first place? B
Carly Smithson, “Here You Come Again”
Absolutely gorgeous performance. The song works as a slowed-down acoustic ballad, and Dolly was probably right when she said that Smithson’s voice is the type the song was written for in the first place. She loses points for being the only one to pick a song that Dolly didn’t write, but kudos otherwise. A-
David Archuletta, “Smoky Mountain Memories”
I was ready to hate this with every fiber of my being. Then the little guy sang the hell out of it, with so much sincerity and conviction that I momentarily believed he was a Smoky Mountain rube that had gone north to look for money to send home. A
Kristy Lee Cook, “Coat of Many Colors”
First problem: it’s an intensely autobiographical song that nobody besides Shania Twain has ever been able to cover convincingly, and that’s because her own childhood was so similar to Dolly’s. Second problem: there isn’t a line to spare in the song, and when you edit out two verses, it doesn’t make any sense. She sang it reasonably well but that’s not going to cut it when you’re covering a classic. This, not “I Will Always Love You”, is the one Dolly song that must be approached with caution. C
Syesha Mercado, “I Will Always Love You”
The judges were so unfair on this performance. The piano beginning was perfect, very similar to the version Linda Ronstadt released in the seventies, and when she went to the big finish a la Whitney Houston, she completely nailed it. What’s unfair is that the judges then proceeded to do what they always do when a Whitney ballad is performed – that it didn’t match the original. Enough already. It’s a live performance, and you can’t compare that to the record. I’ve seen Whitney Houston perform “I Will Always Love You” many times, and no even she comes close to her own studio performance. Check out this clip of Whitney opening the Grammys and tell me that I’m wrong. A
Michael Johns, “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right”
A number one hit that’s been unfortunately forgotten with time. It’s a classic country song, finding pleasure in a one-night stand so you don’t have to spend the night alone. He turned it into a blues number that worked in every single way it could possibly work. A
Overall, I thought it was a good night that showcased a great songwriting catalog. A good mix of the familiar and the obscure. I would’ve liked a Norah Jones-esque “The Grass is Blue” in there, or a little “Light of a Clear Blue Morning”, but I think America was given a view of the songwriting legend Dolly, rather than the Hollywood Dolly that most non-country fans usually define her as.
Any thoughts on which country artist should guest next year? I’d love to see Trisha Yearwood as a vocal mentor, or maybe Vince Gill with his songwriting catalog. What do you think?