The show's most successful alum ever, Carrie Underwood, returned to the house that made her to serve as mentor for the Top 5 and also the category for one of the two rounds of competition. It's the semifinals episode of "American Idol" and two contestants won't make it through the night.
After joining the contestants for a rousing rendition of "See You Again," where she outsang every single one of the remaining five contestants, the night kicked off with Ryan Seacrest letting all of us know that "This is 'American Idol.'" In the spirit of Mother's Day, the second round of the competition is songs dedicated to the contestant's mothers.
Fair warning, since I'm safe at home, I'm probably going to be a little harsher than my colleagues Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. But I might be nicer, too. Maybe. With two rounds of singing tonight, I'm going to rank them in each individual category and then average those rankings to come up with my overall results.
CARRIE UNDERWOOD ROUND
Before we take a look at how the contestants did tackling Carrie's vast library of hits, she also graced the stage herself for an absolutely stunning performance of "Cry Pretty" that rocked so hard she sounded like Axl Rose in the closing note. Carrie just keeps getting better, and it's just a good thing she performed after the contestants in this round, because she sang circles around them. It goes to show that you never stop growing and learning as a singer and performer. She absolutely owned that stage from the first note to the last wail.
Michael J. Woodard
Michael J. Woodard (20) "Flat on the Floor," Carrie Underwood
Of course Michael also loves country music. The most versatile performer left in the competition has already impressed with everything from soul to R&B, rock-and-roll to Broadway, so why not country music, too? It was a high-energy performance, but I would have liked to see more dynamism from that performance vocally. His stage presence was the strongest we've seen yet from him.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "So Small," Carrie Underwood
I expected great things from our resident country singers with Carrie Underwood mentoring them, and her classic country catalogue represented. I wasn't disappointed. Country music can be about pulling heartstrings, but mostly it's about storytelling. Caleb probably could have picked a song better suited to his gentler side, but I applaud him stepping outside of his comfort zone during the big moment in the middle. Still, he brought it home with intimacy. This wasn't his strongest vocal, but it was a beautifully small performance.
Maddie Poppe (20) "I Told You So," Carrie Underwood
Maddie touched the heart of this song and pulled out the emotion. I'm not sure if she took Carrie's advice to stop overthinking and feel her way through it, but it seems that's exactly what she did. I didn't love the way she dropped back out of her falsetto, but the overall performance was fantastic. Maddie brings a folk sensibility to her performances, and for most of that song she absolutely drew me in. She nailed the storytelling aesthetic of country in a way that many country singers should be jealous of.
Carrie gave Cade advice he should have gotten earlier in his career. She told him about storytelling in music. He needs to learn to take the listener on a journey and that means not always being at an eleven with his vocal delivery. We know he's got it, so that's great. Now make us feel it. To Cade's credit, he took the note and we journeyed with him through a rock anthem. He still needs to work on his lower register a bit, but his voice was stellar throughout so much of that song -- and he's so adorable -- he's got a real shot of winning the whole thing.
Gabby Barrett (17) "Last Name," Carrie Underwood
This song is all about attitude. She looked like an absolute star up there, rocking out and having a grand old time. I loved the grit in her voice as she told the story. Gabby has impressed week after week, but clearly meeting her personal idol pushed her to another level. Not only that, she was determined to impress Carrie on her own song, and she delivered the strongest vocal of the season so far. A great song choice and a stellar delivery may have just secured her spot in the finals.
Gabby Barrett (17) "I Have Nothing," Whitney Houston
I mean damn, girl, go for it! After a fantastic vocal on one of the biggest voices of the modern era, Gabby reached back and almost wrangled one of the biggest voices of all time. She only got overwhelmed by the sheer size of that song a few times, but she managed to pull it together into an affective tribute to both her mother and Whitney's genius. I loved the different layers of her voice she spotlighted, and the sheer guts it took to come out and do that song at all.
Michael J. Woodard
Michael J. Woodard (20) "Still I Rise," Yolanda Adams
Michael went with a lesser-known song, but that may have been to his favor, because he was able to make it more his own than having people compare him to the original. So silky was he on this vocal it was like Luther Vandross possessed his body for a moment. He massaged the verses and soared on the chorus to heights we've not see in weeks. These contestants are feeling really inspired by the categories this week, which just goes to show how important they can be to the success of the singers and the overall show.
Maddie Poppe (20) "God Only Knows," The Beach Boys
Maddie slipped back into her unique approach to re-interpreting song classics through her folk filter. She took a classic Beach Boys song and gave it a haunting, ethereal quality that was infectious from the first note. It's the kind of performance that lingers in the corner of your mind for days after, creeping out when you least expect it. Just like everyone else in this round, Maddie took the inspiration of her mother and pushed herself to new heights. She got so emotional, she couldn't even eke out the last note.
And there it is. Cade Foehner is a southern rocker, and a damned fine one! Interestingly, he was actually stronger on the more tender verses of this than when he belted out the chorus. Clearly this song means something to him (and his mama), and the emotions he felt while performing it carried through that performance and elevated it to another level. This was the strongest we've seen Cade in a while, and if he's re-peaking, he's doing it at the right time.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "Stars in Alabama," Jamey Johnson
Like Michael, Caleb went with a song that mainstream America was less familiar with. So for them, this was Caleb's story, and he told it beautifully. He's just an absolute natural in country music and I really don't think it matters what happens on this show. I'm not sure Caleb is going to connect with enough of America to actually pull of an "Idol" win, but I don't see that slowing his musical dreams at all. He is such a polished country music singer and he's ready to take Nashville by storm.
With only three contestants making it through the night out of five, it couldn't be tighter. My two-round rankings left me with a tie for third between Gabby and Maddie, with Michael dropping to my bottom. But we are talking about the narrowest of margins between these contestants.
Honestly, any combination of them would be worthy of making it into the finals as this is one of the most talented Top 5 groups "American Idol" has ever seen. Gabby and Caleb are ready to take Nashville right now, while Cade could be leading a rock band tomorrow. Maddie is a wholly unique kind of performer who could carve out a niche for herself anywhere, and Michael is a chameleon ready to take on anything and everything all at once.
Caleb was the first contestant to earn his way into the finale, followed by Gabby as country music has represented strong this week. I have to admit, I was a little surprised to see Maddie slip into that third spot, forcing us to say goodbye to Cade and Michael.
I suspected Michael's lack of a clear artistic vision might have made it hard for America to connect to him, and he did not have as strong a night as the other contestants. As for Cade, he simply falls in the same category as other great rock voices on the show (Adam Lambert, Chris Daughtry, Bo Bice) who ultimately came up short.
Next week, it's all over with the two-night "American Idol" finale, live from coast-to-coast on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET and Monday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC.