It all happened so quickly this season, and now here we are at the performance finale of "American Idol" already. Only three contestants remain and they say a lot about what America is looking for. None of them are the traditional pop singer "Idol" used to crown. Instead, we have Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Maddie Poppe and Gabby Barrett.
That's two country singers and Maddie, who could best be described as a folk rocker. And tonight, they hit us up three times each to try and make their case for why they should be crowned the winner in the one-hour season finale Monday night. We got to see them revisit their favorite performance of the season, offer a song dedicated to their hometown, and even debut the live performances of their potential winning singles.
As always, the hometown visits were touching and tear-inducing as these three unassuming young people got hero's welcomes, complete with parades and thousands of people coming out to wish them well. All that positive energy must have really invigorated them, as we had a pretty balanced competition, until the final round when one contestant really brought it home.
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 three 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 and predict my winner for the whole shebang!
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "Johnny Cash Heart," Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb was so eager to get the show started that he came in early on this classically styled country ballad. He maybe should have spent a little more time with the song so he could find his way into the story. It didn't feel like he was selling the emotions behind the lyrics as well as he could have. The romance of June and Johnny Cash is almost legendary in country music, and yet Caleb felt like he was underwhelmed by it. There were a few moments in the chorus where he felt connected, and belted with some passion, but it was underwhelming considering how we're used to seeing him present a song.
Like Caleb before -- and Gabby to a much lesser degree in this round -- Maddie felt a few times like she was chasing this song she was clearly not as familiar with. The vibe of the song definitely suits her vocal qualities, and I could see it rising on the indie rock and alternative charts for sure. It even had a little of that Americana vibe made big again by the likes of Mumford & Sons and The Head and the Heart. Maddie definitely knows what kind of artist she is. I disagree with the other judges that Maddie was the strongest, as I still think Gabby had a better overall performance.
Gabby Barrett (18) "Rivers Deep," Gabby Barrett
The church came out from the first note as Gabby commanded her "Idol" single in a way Caleb never quite did. She didn't perform this like it was a new song we'd never heard before. It also offered some hip nuances to it, with a little bit of funk and pop rock vibe battling it out with her country core. Gabby sound like an artist debuting her new single for the audience rather than a contestant fighting for their votes. It was a perfectly suited song and, aside from a missed high note and a point where it almost looked like she forgot the words, Gabby gave us everything we needed from her in this performance.
Gabby Barrett (18) "Little Red Wagon," Miranda Lambert
I didn't love Gabby's take on this the first time around, but she gave a more confident and nuanced performance this time. Gabby strategically built a night that would show what kind of artist she wants to be, and the aggressive female empowerment of Miranda Lambert is a big part of her image and musical style. The biggest problem I have with this song is that it's a little shouty through a great deal of it, meaning it doesn't spotlight her vocal ability. But it absolutely sold her attitude, chutzpah and stage presence.
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "Don't Close Your Eyes," Keith Whitley
A classic country crooner, Caleb was definitely more comfortable on this encore from Hollywood Week. It's the kind of '80s country ballad that Caleb has been able to shine on, but the most glaring thing for me was a seeming complete and total lack of vibrato on his held notes. I don't recall Caleb doing this in the past, as it just kind of left those lingering moments hanging there, flat and uninteresting. Each time, he pulled me right out of the song with those held notes. Caleb has a natural country voice, and a unique intonation. The majority of that song was owned beautifully, but it wasn't flawless.
Maddie Poppe (20) "Don't Ever Let Your Children Grow Up," Maddie Poppe
As a singer-songwriter, it was wise of Maddie to tap back into one of her own songs after being forced to sing an original song written by someone else. No one understands Maddie's worldview and vocal styling better than Maddie herself, and it was wonderful to see her confidently tell this story about the innocent joys of childhood and the pains of growing beyond that. I loved that Maddie came out here and reminded America who she is as an artist. This is who they're voting for, and this is the artist they and "Idol" will get if she wins.
It was like "Glee" all over again, with a spunky teenager full of dreams and attitude taking on this Journey classic. It actually fit Gabby's rock-country voice better than I expected, and it helped her put her own spin on it. She's still working on her stage presence and approach, but it's coming along and she is going to grow into a really fun performer to watch. I think she could have brought a little better controlled attitude, and it looked like her vocal control started slipping as the song progressed. But she definitely poured her all into that performance; it's just that she was running out of it. For her sake, Ryan Seacrest didn't tell her that Steve Perry was actually in the audience watching that performance, and he even went so far as to say it was the best version of the song he'd ever heard. I'm not so sure about that, Steve!
Caleb Lee Hutchinson
Caleb Lee Hutchinson (18) "Folsom Prison Blues," Johnny Cash
I could be surprised, but I'm not sure Caleb did himself any favors with this final song choice. It's a classic, but it's not the most dynamic or current song. Now I could be totally wrong and maybe it's middle-aged or older people voting for the winner of this thing. He sounded great on the song, so he may even win the younger voters over anyway. Plus, with his sense of humor and weight-loss, Caleb's is easily the most feel-good story and contestant of the season. Most importantly, Caleb looked confident and extremely comfortable up there, and that's going to translate well with viewers.
Maddie Poppe (20) "Landslide," Maddie Poppe
Maddie had a few moments where she seemed a little overwhelmed by the moment, but that performance may have just given her the whole show. It certainly helped that she got to sing last on the night, but more importantly, Maddie has proven herself a singular artist in her own right, and she showcased that range and diversity beautifully throughout the evening. Going into this performance, I honestly thought I might wind up with a tie. After that masterful interpretation, the night is definitely hers. But will the whole season be hers?
Honestly, any of these winners would be fine choices to represent the "American Idol" brand. Perhaps more importantly to the show and ABC as they try and differentiate themselves from "The Voice" -- which churns out entertainment over bona fide recording artists -- any one of the three has the potential to really make an impact in the music industry.
Based on past experience, Caleb Lee Hutchinson and Gabby Barrett have a better shot than Maddie Poppe, though that's primarily because Nashville has proven itself more open and receptive to singers coming out of these singing competitions. Even the successes "The Voice" has had have come from this sector.
That said, Maddie is the more complete artistic package, polished and ready to go. Gabby has a fiery edge that is very current with what's happening in country music, while Caleb has that smooth throwback vocal style that never quite goes out of style. It's a veritable coin toss as to who is most deserving, and a testament to the strength of the talent pool this season.
The other thing to consider is the possibility that the two country singers will eat one another's votes a bit, as they share a fanbase, which will allow Maddie to sneak up and snatch the crown. My picks are for Maddie to do just that, followed closely by Gabby and then Caleb. But I think it's going to be a very close vote. And if Maddie does win, I'd not be surprised if Nashville doesn't swoop in and snatch up Caleb and Gabby anyway.
It's all over Monday night, as "American Idol" reveals its winner during its first season finale on ABC, airing at 9 p.m. ET.