Gone Country: Idol Contestants Find Country Success

Quick: name any pop single released by an Idol contestant who didn’t win. Did it take you a minute to think of songs such as Clay Aiken’s “Invisible”, Kimberley Locke’s “Eighth World Wonder”, or Diana DeGarmo’s “Dreams”? I bet it did.

Now try this: name any country single released by an Idol contestant who didn’t win. That test should be easier, as only Carrie Underwood’s big country hits are ruled out. Kellie Pickler’s current top 20 (and climbing) hit “Red High Heels” and the Josh Gracin catalog, including his smash hits “I Want to Live” and “Brass Bed” should instantly come to the minds of Idol fans, as well as fans of the respective singers.

One final question: which Idol has had the most successful full-length album (in sales) to date? If you answered Kelly Clarkson, you’d be dead wrong. Carrie Underwood’s debut album “Some Hearts” just crossed the four million mark in sales, and shows little sign of slowing down soon. Josh Gracin’s debut album quietly went Gold, and Pickler’s debut “Small Town Girl” also appears headed to Gold status.

Meanwhile, attempts by former contestants Corey Clark, Justin Guarini, Tamyra Gray, Ayla Brown, and others to break into the pop charts have fallen on deaf ears. Even season two darling Aiken has only achieved modest airplay at pop, something Kellie Pickler has done right out the gate with her first single.

Oddly enough, American Idol contestants have now generated more success on the country charts than country-geared Nashville Star contestants have. Buddy Jewell’s first hit did well, but followups and his album struggled, and he eventually parted ways with Sony/Nashville. Miranda Lambert’s had middling success, but still can’t quite achieve that breakout hit. More recent winners have also struggled to have measurable success on the country charts.

The country success for Idol contestants can be attributed partly to country music fans being less fickle than the fans of pop music. Today’s pop chart consists mostly of “flavors of the week”, acts who currently have a hot song out, most of which have been in the business for less than three years. While there’s plenty of new blood in country music, veteran acts like Martina McBride, Toby Keith, Tim McGraw, Keith Urban, and George Strait still regularly top both the airplay and album charts. So, put a good singer with a tried-and-true formula, and you can’t help but achieve some measure of success. While achieving a hit depends heavily on luck, a catchy song will get a new act further on the country charts than it will the pop charts.

Persona also has some effect on success. Remember, these contestants were seen by millions of viewers nationwide for many weeks. Justin’s argument with Simon on American Idol and his well publicized struggles with RCA paint him in a negative light. Tamyra Gray was burdened with the “boring” label by some, especially after her first single “Raindrops Will Fall” received dreary reviews from the music industry. The stereotypes people made of Justin and Tamyra doomed the fates of their debut albums, esepcially since at at time when “catchy” sells, neither of their singles fit the “catchy” criteria. Meanwhile, Corey Clark looked foolish trying to capitalize on Paula Abdul’s generosity and was largely ignored by the music community as a whole.

Two former contestants are special cases. Mario Vazquez has achieved a solid radio hit with his single “Gallery”, but it hasn’t translated into sales. Unfortunately, as usually is the case in this situation, any follow up singles have fizzled at radio, and album sales are lackluster. Meanwhile, Ayla Brown released her debut album under indie label Deal Time Records, but try finding it anywhere outside the Northeast. Between poor distribution and NCAA regulations (she is on a basketball scholarship at Boston College), Brown’s album had little chance at making any kind of blip on the sales charts. Radio airplay for Brown is nonexistent, as is often the case with independent label artists.

Meanwhile, Idols that have gone country have been smartly marketed, and have worked on songs that showcase their vocal highlights and limit their weaknesses. Simon Cowell didn’t get Josh Gracin’s country twang during his Idol stint, but country music fans certainly have. Josh leaned towards ballads and midtempos, while avoiding faster paced songs like “Ain’t Goin’ Down ‘Til the Sun Comes Up”, which he had trouble with on Idol. Underwood is an excellent vocalist who can more than hold her own with the likes of Faith Hill and Martina McBride, and she’s proven it on her ballad “Jesus Take the Wheel” and her recent chart topper, “Before He Cheats.” Underwood recently beat out both Hill & McBride at the American Music Awards, and may have some Grammy metal headed her way come February.

The record label headed in a different direction with Kellie Pickler, a decidedly polarizing contestant on the show. Fans didn’t know whether to be delighted or dismayed at her naïve nature. Her album plays up to her small town roots and some of her “blonde moments” on the Idol stage. However, she struggled mightily at big ballads, and her album stays away from the big held notes to a large degree, settling more for “catchy” faster paced fare that will satisfy both her fans and general country music fans.

Will season six bring us a country act ready to go, win or lose? We shall see come January 16, 2007, when American Idol returns. To the Point and Back will be covering the new season of American Idol in full detail, so check the site often for recaps and opinion surrounding the new crop of talented young people who are about to get a reality check from Simon, Paula, Randy…and us!