Season Premiere of ‘American Idol’ Brings Merle Haggard, Vince Gill Covers

What an amazing way to start the season!

Written by Tammy Ragusa
Season Premiere of ‘American Idol’ Brings Merle Haggard, Vince Gill Covers
AMERICAN IDOL – “201 (Auditions)” – “American Idol” returns to The ABC Television Network on SUNDAY, MARCH 3 (8:00-10:01 p.m. EST), streaming and on demand, after first making its return to airwaves as the No. 1 reality show launch for its inaugural season on the network during the 2017-2018 season. (ABC/Nicole Rivelli)

The highly anticipated 17th season of ABC’s American Idol made its big debut on March 3, and it seems that the only people more excited than the viewers are judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry, and Lionel Richie, and host Ryan Seacrest.

The first night of auditions took place in multiple locations, including Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, and New York, and the talent was as diverse as the regions it came from. It was a magical night of some big hits, a handful of misses, and a few tears, too. As Ryan said, “Idol is off to a running start.”

Indeed it is. Birmingham, Alabama’s Walker Burroughs was first up. Taking a seat behind the piano, the 20-year-old delivered a beautifully effortless performance of Ben Rector’s “Love Like This” that had the judges comparing him to a young Billy Joel. In fact, Katy declared, “I think you’re top 10 material.” Luke very accurately described him as captivating, but good-naturedly added, “you remind me how untalented I am.” And with that, Walker became the first singer to make it to Hollywood.

Most artists have pre-performance traditions and for 23-year-old Johanna Jones from Las Vegas, it is eating potato chips. After a quick chip-eating contest, she gave a sparkling rendition of Sam Smith’s “I’m Not the Only One,” free of a single crumb. While Lionel said that Johanna’s performance was mesmerizing, Katy told the In-And-Out Burger cook, “I’m scared for you. The job you have worked so hard for, you will have to quit.” Yes, another performer got the golden ticket.

Not everyone performance was as joyful as the first two. Young Kai the Singer, from Kingstree, South Carolina, shared the heartbreaking story of her large family living a life of near poverty. Overcome with nervousness, her performance of Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” was riddled with missteps and it was obvious the judges were on the fence. But sensing Kai’s anxiety, they talked to the 19-year-old, encouraged her to take some deep breaths, then asked her to sit down at the piano and try again. After a tender performance of “My Girl,” Katy told her, “When you got on the piano, you kind of evolved right before our eyes.” Luke added, “When you got on the piano, it truly started stirring many, many emotions in me. Quite frankly, I don’t know how kids like you pony up and make it here.” When she explained that it was her church not only sent her, but bought her the guitar. As Katy and Lionel blotted tears, they also sent her on to Hollywood.

They grow them big in Florien, Louisiana, and it seems that they might grow them talented, too. It was hard not to be intimidated by 26-year-old Tyler Mitchell’s 6’4” frame, but whenever as he sang Vince Gill’s tender ballad, “Whenever You Come Around,” he seemed less imposing or more like a gentle giant. Although he admitted he hadn’t performed much before because of fear, his performance was solid enough to earn the humble country boy a shot in Hollywood.

Not everyone went through, but unlike the early seasons of the shows when those rougher auditions became fodder for the internet, most of those who didn’t make it through to Hollywood weren’t shown.

Then there was Ethan Finkle, a/k/a VoKILLZ. The 24-year-old from Buffalo, New York identified himself as a mystic death creature vocalist and performed an original piece called “American Creature.” While Katy and Lionel observed much of his performance while half-hiding under the table, when VoKILLZ finished, Luke exuberantly said, “Hell, yes,” and Katy followed with, “Heavens, no.” It was Lionel, though, that cast some genuine perspective on the performance. “Everything was perfect, until I started thinking when you start doing duets, how is that going to look,” he said. And even though Katy said yes, “because I don’t want him to murder me,” she was outnumbered and no golden ticket was issued.

If you could have bottled Margie Mays’ energy, you could have lit up her entire Delaware home state for months. The silly sweetheart who burps when she is nervous gave a delightful and animated rendition of Lawrence’s “Shot” and captivated Katy. “Margie, you can be exactly who you are, just focus on winning with your voice and let your heart shine through,” she said. And she’ll be giving her next performance in Hollywood.

One of the biggest surprises of the night came from 19-year-old Myra Tran. Although she now lives in Washington, the petite cutie is originally from Vietnam. Although she sounded timid and sweet while Katy, Lionel, and Luke interviewed her, when she busted out Jennifer Hudson’s “One Night Only,” she blew the doors off of the joint. “You’re up there with the Kelly Clarksons of the world,” Luke told her when she was finished. “You have stepped into a zone that’s yours and all I want you to do from now on is rule your zone,” Lionel advised. In tears, as she walked out with her ticket to Hollywood, Lionel added, “That was a religious experience.”

The coaches have become quite efficient at identifying the potential in some singers, and they exercised that ability with 24-year-old Uché, After singing Christina Aguilera’s “Ain’t No Other Man,” they were hesitant about moving him forward. Giving him a chance to perform a gospel number changed the game for the Sugarland, Texas native. Luke expressed his concerns about how much the young man may have to be coached up, but he agreed with Katy and Lionel that Uché can sing and deserved a trip to Hollywood.

Leave it to a Texas girl to whip out some hardcore country, which is what Laci Kaye Booth did. Hailing from Livingston, Texas, the 23-year-old sang “Mama Tried” by Merle Haggard, but it was her Tammy Wynette-esque tone that won the judges over. “I think you’re the first voice we’ve heard that is really a diamond in the rough,” Katy told the beauty. “I don’t know if you believe that about yourself, but you really have something different.” Luke continued, “You have a timbre in your voice that we didn’t seen from any girl in your lane last year. I think you are very, very close to being a world class.” Lionel also had some sound advice for the young lady: “If you understand how to hone in on your thing and don’t get psyched out by everybody else’s thing, you’re going to be OK.”

The judges pushed 17-year-old Nick Rogers from Highlands Ranch, Colorado and Tiffane LeMay, 20, of Las Vegas through to Hollywood quickly following their respective dynamic performances, but one contestant’s story couldn’t be rushed.

In his introductory package, we learned that 25-year-old Nick Townsend was one of four children in his very close Nebraska family. However, in a relatively short amount of both his older and younger brothers committed suicide. As heartbreaking as his story was for anyone to hear, it hit Luke the hardest. The country superstar’s brother passed away before Luke had originally planned to move to Nashville, and his sister died unexpectedly after he made his Opry debut. “The simplicity of how you are able to sell your voice is very understated and nice,” Luke said before also telling him, “I’ve lost both of my siblings and I applaud you.”

It seemed especially poignant that as American Idol was rolling closing credits, they also shared the Suicide Prevention Hotline number.

Auditions for season 17 of American Idol continue on March 6.