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‘Idol’ singers take gamble on country night

Kenny Rogers tries to guide contestants, but many struggle
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The theme on “American Idol” this week was country music, and the guest was Kenny Rogers, who was a legendary country singer or something before making his fame and fortune as a fast-food chicken magnate.

Rogers became the latest to offer advice to a group of singers who probably view him mostly as someone their parents were really into a long time ago. It’s possible The Gambler didn’t really understand the expectations surrounding the show’s musical guests, who generally offer banal encouragement and the barest of criticisms, but Rogers seemed like he actually had something to say.

His theme for all the singers was the song as a story, and he stressed the importance of conveying the meaning behind the words. Some singers grasped the concept, but most really struggled, and Rogers flat-out said some of the performances could be either good or terrible. He worried about Elliott Yamin oversinging, Taylor Hicks sounding weak with his opening vocals, Chris Daughtry’s versatility and Bucky Covington’s enunciation, which means he either knows his music or he’s been secretly scouring the various “American Idol” message boards.

While no singerwas truly awful, it was the second week in a row where the show lacked truly inspiring performances. That could mean fewer votes than usual, which increases the sheer random chance variable that sometimes leads to favorites being sent to the bottom three or voted off the show entirely. The story of the night, simply put, was that no one did a whole lot to improve their position.

Taylor Hicks, 29, Birmingham, Ala.: Hicks opened the night with John Denver’s classic, “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” His performance was nowhere near heavenly, and a lot closer to what’s heard at karaoke night in West Virginia. He started off shaky, got saved by the musical arrangement and background vocals, and came on strong at the end — but not enough to impress any of the judges. Grade: C+The judges: “It sounded like you’d just chosen that song 10 seconds ago, with no rehearsal — ‘I’ll just pick out a country song, whoopee!’”    —Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Hicks is probably safe anyway, although his position starting off the show won’t help.

Mandisa, 29, Antioch, Tenn.: Mandisa went with Shania Twain’s “Any Man of Mine,” a song that, as Rogers pointed out, has an awful lot of words. That seemed to give Mandisa some problems at first, but as Randy Jackson would and did say, she worked it out in the end. Still, it didn’t seem to impress this week’s designated star-of-another-Fox-show-stuck-in-the-audience, Rachel Bilson from “The O.C.,” who applauded but did not leave her seat to offer a standing ovation. That guest-star role at Seth and Ryan’s beach party may be a longshot for Mandisa now.Grade: BThe judges: “The beginning of it wasn’t hot for me, but at least in the end you got it together. The last five seconds were great.”     —Randy Jackson Stay or go: Mandisa should be OK, although she probably didn’t pick up much additional support this week.

Elliott Yamin, 27, Richmond, Va.: Yamin sang “If Tomorrow Never Comes” as sung by Garth Brooks, assuming Brooks was terrified of screwing up at the time. Yamin’s vocals were fine, as they usually are, but he clutched the microphone so tightly that it seemed like he thought that he’d be kicked off the show if he dropped it. The judges loved it anyway, because they clearly love him and are hoping he sticks around for at least awhile longer. Grade: B-The judges: “There are so many things that I like about you, and one of those things is that you’re a breath of fresh air in this business.    —Paula Abdul.Stay or go: Yamin hasn’t been in the bottom three yet, but he wasn’t that memorable this time around. His voters will need to be dedicated to keep him safely among the leaders.

Paris Bennett, 17, Fayetteville, Ga.: Bennett sang “How Do I Live,” sung by about one million different people, including Trisha Yearwood, LeAnn Rimes, and Carmen Rasmussen on the “American Idol” Season 2 CD. It was the typical power performance from the teenager, and she sang it as if she was angry, which made the song seem more genuine. Randy and Paula were unimpressed, so this became one of the rare efforts where Simon served as the lone voice of positivity on the panel. Grade: A-The judges: “I thought it was very good. I thought it was an excellent choice of songs. It reminded me of early Dionne Warwick.”     —Simon Cowell. Stay or go:  Bennett should be safe again this week.

Ace Young, 25, Denver, Colo.:   It was the same old Ace Young, which probably means he’s in trouble. His rendition of “Tonight I Wanna Cry” by Keith Urban was technically correct, and the performance was solid, but it was also very forgettable. Kenny Rogers liked how the song mixed with Young’s vocal talents, but his support won’t be enough to make much of an impact even if Kenny's phone has speed-dialing capabilities. Grade: CThe judges: “You have a knack of picking the right song for your voice.”     —Paula Abdul.Stay or go: Young’s had problems getting voters mobilized anyway, and this performance won’t be enough to change that. He easily could be voted off.

Kellie Pickler, 19, Albemarle, N.C.:  Pickler sang Reba McEntire’s “Fancy,” about a teenage girl who gets dressed up, made up, and turned out of her home to, um, make her way in the world as best she can.  Given her genuinely sad familial background, she may well have meant it as a warning: “See what might happen to me if I don’t win this! Vote for me or I’m out on the street!” Regardless, she was one of the highlights of the night; it was a style she’s right at home singing and she looked the most comfortable of any of the contestants. Also, in a hard-hitting interview, Ryan asked Pickler if she really was the naïve country girl she claims to be, or if she was putting on an act. Much like the Chris Daughtry conversation last week, this was a clear sign that the “Idol” producers hear the negative buzz zipping its way across the Internet and are looking to nip it in the bud. Pickler did her part by saying that she was the real deal, and pointing out that there is indeed a silent “l” in “salmon,” so her mangling of the word made sense. How much more proof do people need?Grade: B+The judges: “It would have been a shocker if you didn’t do well tonight. I hated the song, personally, but I thought your performance was very good.”     —Simon Cowell. Stay or go: Pickler hasn’t finished among the bottom three vote-getters yet, and it would be a big shock if that happened this week, given that the theme could not have suited her better.

Chris Daughtry, 26, McLeansville, N.C.: It’s a shame Daughtry had already covered Live’s cover of Johnny Cash’s “Walk the Line” a couple of weeks ago. That forced him to sing a country song like an actual country singer this week. He picked Keith Urban’s “Making Memories of Us,” and while it won’t have the Nashville bigwigs beating down his door, it wasn’t a bad effort. As a bonus, he now knows a couple of salient facts: it won’t kill him to sing something besides alternative rock, but he shouldn’t expect Simon to shower him with praise for branching out even though he all but demanded it last week. Grade: BThe judges: “You showed versatility and you still stayed true to who you are. What a concept!”     —Paula Abdul. Stay or go: Daughtry’s in no real danger.

Katharine McPhee, 21, Los Angeles: McPhee was the second-lowest vote-getter last week, which was either a random glitch in the system or a sign that she’s in big trouble. Country music really isn’t her thing, but she did a nice, bluesy job with Faith Hill’s “Bringing out the Elvis.” The vocals weren’t great, but the performance was solid and she looked very comfortable onstage. Grade: BThe judges: “You sang it very nice. Good job.”    —Randy JacksonStay or go: McPhee was in the bottom two last week, so she has cause to worry. Her performance was good enough to secure her safety, but she may just not be connecting with the audience in the same way that she is with the judges.

Bucky Covington, 28, Rockingham, N.C. : Country music should have been right in Covington’s wheelhouse, since he’s tried to make every week sound more like “Nashville Star” than “American Idol.” But faced with the enviable slot at the end of the show, with a style that should be his strength, he just managed a fair version of “Best I Ever Had,” a blah ballad even when a band like Vertical Horizon sings it live. The judges liked it anyway, but it was bland and boring and not at all the showstopping performance he may have needed. Grade: CThe judges: “This is your element. Wear the hat proud.”     —Paula Abdul.Stay or go: Covington’s status fluctuates wildly from week to week, as he flits from the bottom two vote-getters to safely placed in the top tier of singers. If that trend continues, he’s in trouble this week.

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