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'American Idol': A country-strong final two contestants vow to stay the course, regardless of outcome

May 25, 2011|Gerrick D. Kennedy | Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles —

Scotty McCreery said the painstakingly obvious when he and Lauren Alaina sat in front of reporters for a hasty news conference before the two went head to head Tuesday night.

"Country music is hip ... country fans are loyal, they've gotten us here," he said.

Despite this season's major facelift involving new superstar judges Jennifer Lopez and Aerosmith's Steven Tyler and today's hottest pop hitmakers working with Interscope's Jimmy Iovine, McCreery and Alaina are without a doubt 100% country strong in a world where their peers are dancing along to sticky pop hooks.

In one corner is McCreery. His baritone sounds older than his 17 years, and he's made girls, as well as Lopez and guest mentors Lady Gaga and Beyoncé swoon with his boy-next-door looks. Throughout the competition, he's leaned closer to traditional country greats, and shied away from messing with that formula.

In the other is Alaina. With a sweet-faced Southern belle charm, a penchant for pageant dresses and a love for "Idol" champ Carrie Underwood, she's more likely to channel Taylor Swift's country-pop offerings should she win. Plus the 16-year-old was thought to be the Chosen One.

And just as a reporter reminded the two that contestants'  post-"Idol" albums often seem to deviate from the styles that made them favorites among voting fans, these two vowed to stay the course -- even while working with Iovine, whose resume reads like a who's who of rock and roll, pop and R&B.

"I'm a country singer," Alaina said, before McCreery finished. "Yeah, we're both country. If it crosses over, that's great. If not..."

There doesn't seem to be an "if not" when it comes to "Idol" and country music, especially now that Underwood has passed Kelly Clarkson as the most bankable winner (she's amassed more than 12 million albums and 18 million digital tracks since taking the crown in 2005).

The show has always leaned toward Middle America, both in geography and class, with most of the winners reigning from Midwestern or Southern states. The final two continue this tradition: McCreery hails from North Carolina, Alaina from Georgia.

Tuesday night inside the Nokia Theatre, the majority of the audience couldn't stop screaming for McCreery, and had no problem being coached by the show's hype man to shout "bang, bang" when he sang the lyrics "gone like a soldier in the Civil War" during his reprise of Montgomery Gentry's "Gone."

The judges, however, thought Alaina was the one to beat, especially after the emotional performance of her would-be first single, "Like My Mother Does"  --  which interestingly was first sung by another "Idol" alum, Season 7's country gal, Kristy Lee Cook.

"You may have just won," Lopez told her.

After a few years of coffeehouse belters taking it all, is it very surprising that the last two standing are a product of the genre that has been churning out tunes fine-tuned for the very population that "Idol" aims to attract?

And with more than 122 million votes cast for this year's winner, the highest in the show's history, McCreery looks to be right. Country fans are indeed loyal.

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