After 15 seasons of star-making performances, cringe-worthy auditions and more than a few singers who were, to quote original judge Randy Jackson, "a little pitchy, dawg," American Idol signs off for good on Thursday, April 7th, following a three-part finale. For eight of the show's 15 seasons, Idol was at the top of the TV ratings, elevating the FOX network to new heights and introducing a handful of singers who would go on to stardom in the fields of pop, rock, R&B, country and more.
Country music performers had a presence throughout Idol's run, with season two finalist Josh Gracin becoming the show's first Top Five finalist to score a Number One country hit ("Nothin' to Lose"). In 2005, original judge Simon Cowell, whose controversial opinions galvanized the viewing audience, correctly predicted Carrie Underwood to win the competition that year. He also stated – correctly – that she would go on to sell more records than any Idol champ before her. To date, Underwood has sold more than 15 million records in the U.S., edging out first-season winner Kelly Clarkson by a little over a million.
Other country competitors throughout the show included Kellie Pickler (whom Cowell famously branded "a naughty little minx" after one performance), Bucky Covington, Kristy Lee Cook and 16-year-old Lauren Alaina, who finished in second place during season 10, edged out by 17-year-old Scotty McCreery. The North Carolina high-school student's deep singing voice, first heard when he auditioned in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was such a surprise to then-judge Steven Tyler (a future country artist himself), that he uttered a rhyming expletive before sending McCreery to the next round of the competition.
As season 10 came to a close, McCreery, who had sung everything from George Strait's "I Cross My Heart" to the Coasters' "Young Blood," went into the final episodes with Lauren Alaina, whose final performances including teaming with Carrie Underwood on "Before He Cheats." McCreery's duet partner was superstar Tim McGraw, who joined the teenager for a soaring, dramatic version of his 2004 hit, "Live Like You Were Dying." When the final voted were tallied, McCreery was crowned the winner, making him Idol's youngest male victor and second-youngest behind pop singer Jordin Sparks.
Both McCreery and Alaina signed with Mercury Nashville, releasing their debut albums in October 2011, one week apart. McCreery's Clear as Day made him the first country artist to debut at Number One on the Billboard 200 with a debut album, and the youngest male artist to debut at the top spot with his first LP. Among the songs on Clear as Day is "Walk in the Country," which was co-written and originally performed by current Idol judge Keith Urban.
The three-part American Idol finale begins tonight with a 90-minute retrospective, American Idol: American Dream. Carrie Underwood will sing live and Kelly Clarkson will be featured in a pre-recorded segment when the show's last episodes crown the final champion later this week. Those shows air live at 8 p.m. ET, Wednesday and Thursday on FOX.