American Idol: Welcome to Dollywood

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American Idol surged forward this week, welcoming its first of no doubt many celebrity guest coaches, the inimitable Dolly Parton. Over the span of a career longer than most Idol contestants’ lives, Dolly has marked herself one of the finest songwriters in the business and one of its most recognizable icons. How did the nine remaining hopefuls stack up on an all-Dolly program? And what did America think?

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First up was Brooke White, who gave a gallopy, stripped-down “Jolene,” accompanying herself on the guitar and backed by a bopping drummer and violinist, a sort of street-corner trio from one of the dustier states. The judges weren’t too impressed (though Paula complimented Brooke’s emotional connection to each song she sings), but her performance was easily one of the best of the evening. Simon, employing his new favorite insult, accused Brooke of busking her way through the song.

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Next up was David Cook, who finally heard the call of the stylist and trimmed his overlong hair. (Sorry, Dave: you weren’t fooling anyone with that 22-year-old emo-boy look.) Despite the improved appearance, his “Little Sparrow” was a Creed-ish, bore, albeit one preferred by the judging panel. “If you can make a song about sparrows good, which you actually did, congratulations,” carped Simon, which we guess is a compliment, somehow. (Mid-show, poor David was rushed to the hospital as he was complaining of heart palpitations. He’s doing fine — high blood pressure — and we wish him all the best in his recovery.)

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Ramiele Malubay, who has struggled for the past few weeks to connect with a song and with the audience, struggled again tonight. Dolly proclaimed that Malubay and she were similarly diminutive but that “the fact that she’s little ain’t gonna stop her from doing big things.” I was an early Ramiele supporter, but I’m starting to think that the fact that she can’t perform is gonna stop her from doing big things. Her “Do I Ever Cross Your Mind?” was a bouncy two-steppin’ number, but Ramiele only seems to know two steps: She cantered around the stage like a show pony. Randy gave it a 6.5 out of 10, which seemed generous.

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Jason Castro was “kinda funky . . . lookin’,” said Dolly, a sentiment not shared by the screaming young women who interrupted every silent moment Jason had onstage to scream their love for him. His “Travellin’ Thru,” Dolly’s beautiful song for Transamerica, could have been worse, but it certainly did not do funky Jason any favors. Randy said he “believed it,” citing a singer-songwriter vibe, but Simon decreed that if this had been the first time he had seen Jason, he would not have gotten it.

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Pregnant-or-not Carly Smithson‘s claim to fame is her incredible voice, and she did herself a favor this week, picking a song almost entirely designed around one show-stopping note. “Here You Come Again” was basically a slow build to its climactic wail, but Carly nailed it and gained the appreciation of the judges. All three applauded, though Simon, somewhat gratuitously, told her it’s time to “start dressing like a star,” which must mostly mean lose some weight.

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David Archuleta has been obscured lately by his bad song choices, but his “Smoky Mountain Memories” was great this week: harkening back to his early success with another ballad, “Imagine,” it brought a tear to even Dolly’s eye and almost dislodged her false eyelash. Randy proclaimed it the best performance of the night, and Paula, in an occult moment, complimented David’s aura before calling him “glorious.” Even Simon had no objections. The front-runner’s back!

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On the other side of the Idol spectrum, perennial lag-behind Kristy Lee Cook, somehow still a part of the competition despite poor reviews, took on “Coat of Many Colors,” Dolly’s anthem of schoolyard humiliation. Once again, Kristy Lee wasn’t great, but she’s really come to appreciate what America loves her for: being hot. She was glamorous with her huge earrings and floor-length dress, and even being barefoot couldn’t diminish her sultry charms. “Country music is your wheelhouse,” declared Randy. OK, whatever.

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Syesha Mercado has also spent her fair share of time in the bottom three, and it’s not wholly clear whether her “I Will Always Love You” will keep her out of it tomorrow. More a cover of Whitney Houston’s song than of Dolly’s, Syesha did a pretty good job, but no one’s a patch on Whitney at her greatest. (Syesha should remember that Asia’h was voted off for her hubris in tackling a Whitney song some weeks back; America doesn’t like upstarts stepping on their queen.) Randy complimented her for taking on “the biggest tiger of the evening,” but Simon rightly said it paled next to the Whitney version.

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Finally, Michael Johns, who was brought near to tears when he met Dolly, took on “It’s All Wrong But It’s All Right.” The bare arrangement sounded Doors-y, and highlighted the rock sound of Michael’s voice, but his weird ascot and creepy way of molesting the mic stand were not winning. Still, this earned Randy?s chosen compliment, ?blazing hot,? and Simon admitted it was the best he?d ever heard Michael sing.

Who?s going on to next week, and who?ll be crying at Dollywood? Tune in tomorrow when Dolly?s back for the judging.

– Matthew Schneier