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 / Updated  / Source: msnbc.com contributor
By By Craig Berman

Small towns have proved their worth when it comes to "American Idol" finalists and winners.

North Carolina-natives Fantasia Barrino's and Clay Aiken's strong finishes convinced producers that there was more to North Carolina than winning college basketball teams. This year, perhaps as a birthday present to Simon Cowell, they decided to save North Carolinians the trouble of crossing state lines and held auditions right in Clay Aiken's home state.

Hopefully, Simon got a chance to sample some good old Southern barbecue for his birthday supper.

Nice girls finish first
Whether the Southern hospitality mellowed the judges or the talent was just that good, the Greensboro audition seemed to offer more than the usual number of candidates with a chance to make the finals.

One contender for the long haul will be Kellie Pickler, a 19-year-old skating waitress who was the first of several contestants with sad stories to share. Pickler's mom left her family when she was three, her dad's in prison, and she lives with her grandfather in Albemarle, N.C.

"I have nothing to go home for," she said sadly, in the video clip that almost always means success. Indeed, Pickler belted out some Kelly Clarkson, got passed through to Hollywood, and immediately broke down in tears.

"That's a nice girl — that's the one I'd like to see win," Simon actually said.

Given that "nice girls" Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson have been the viewers' choice in previous seasons, she would appear to have a good chance at success.

However, Pickler had competition from Kendra Winston in the Contestant-Most-Likely-To-Have-Their-Life-Made-Into-A-Lifetime-Movie award. Winston, by her count, has been in 42 foster homes and group homes in North Carolina. She had three kids by age 19, married someone who was "not a good man — at all," got her GED, went to college — and is now going to Hollywood.

She also had the smackdown of the night, when, after Randy and Paula had already approved her plane ticket, Simon chirped in "I would have said no."

"Good thing it doesn't matter, 'cause I'm going!" Winston snapped back.

Tyra Juliette Schwartz's story wasn't as dramatic, but probably resonated with more viewers. Schwartz told Ryan that she'd just made the 11-hour train trip from New York City for the auditions after breaking up with her boyfriend. "I called him to thank him for being so wonderful, and the girl he was cheating on me with picked up," she said.

The best revenge, besides the chance to smack him down on national television, was to make it through to the Hollywood round. Schwartz did both.

Halicia Thompson, another North Carolina native with a chance to go a long way, also impressed. "A natural," Simon said. "A total natural. And I like you."

The judge all lost their minds over Paris Bennett, the 17-year-old daughter of former Sounds of Blackness lead singer Ann Nesby. The way Randy gushed over Nesby before the audition, Bennett probably could have gone onstage and sang nursery rhymes without blowing her chance at the next round.

Of course, she did no such thing. In fact, she sang so well that Paula's only response was "Will you bless us with another song?" Not surprisingly, she did, and was rewarded with the golden ticket.

Where have you gone, Clay Aiken?
The men of Greensboro were far less successful. Even the ones who passed the auditions were iffy, like firefighter Jordan Sutherland, who snuck through with a 2-1 vote, or Kenneth "Chase" Bush, whose unkempt appearance and high-pitched speaking voice didn't indicate that he could sing as well as he did.

Jeffrey "Ryan" Baysden got Simon to say he's the first Ryan he's ever seen with talent, but that was probably the highlight of the auditions for his gender.

Steven David Jr. flirted and danced with Paula, got the votes he needed, picked Paula up and walked to the door … then went outside to share the news with his wife.

"Do not do that again! You're a married man! I do not feel right about that!" Paula said.

Of course, David's day job is loading bombs, rockets and missiles onto F-16s for the U.S. Air National Guard, so Paula should probably get over it before a stray missile winds up taking out her car.

A kinder, gentler judge?
One would expect Simon to be cranky spending his birthday in a place far from home listening to hopefuls who had problems carrying a tune.

But his criticisms were mostly geared for the cameras. One contestant was more suited for Jerry Springer than "American Idol," another looked like Mrs. Incredible Hulk, a third had the personality of a hippo, and a fourth needed a soundproof shower curtain if she wanted to keep practicing. Tame stuff for the resident bratty Brit.

But his birthday present came in the form of Marcus Behling, who came in saying he'd won approximately 10 talent shows. Maybe that was for holding a note for the longest time, because he had the judges in stitches. When they asked if he'd had singing lessons he said he had — from a Paula Abdul/Randy Jackson DVD.

"I love life!" Simon said. Randy pointed out that videos don't help much if there's no talent there to start with, but it didn't matter. Not even a call from David Beckham would have made him happier than the proof that Randy and Paula's advice was being lapped up by people with no chance at musical success .

In fact, the judges were nice on both days. They were tolerant of Shawn De Salazar's diagram that was better suited to the science fair than an audition, and Chonna Clepper's showing up in lingerie. Paula rejected Richard Garland with a supportive "Please don't take it so hard. It's just an audition."

The contestants were similarly nice. "I want this more than a whole bag of gummi bears," Ronda Jones said while pleading for mercy. She didn't get it, but odds are small that the judges have ever heard that comparison before. Maybe she would have stood a better chance if she'd made the stakes higher.

Even the advertised blowup — the one teased for the first hour and 45 minues of the two-hour show, wasn't much for drama. Rhonetta Johnson came on stage, sang a couple of songs, and got the 3-0 boot from the judges.

Simon's feedback was "absolutely not," and Randy's helpful words were "It's a no … Rhonetta, you're not a good singer." Paula just gave a simple "no," and even offered her water.

Apparently, Johnson didn't like the tone of that "no." After smiling and walking offstage, she spent a few minutes on an anti-Paula diatribe that was probably no worse than the producers yelled in private after the whole Corey Clark fiasco of last year. She's not a superstar, she hasn't released an album in about 20 years, she's old … all things anybody can get off of the Internet.

Apart from the profanities, it wasn't even all that entertaining. The voices from North Carolina have traditionally been the best in the show, but clearly the malcontents are mostly just hype.

Craig Berman is a writer in Washington, D.C.