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'American Idol' final three recap: can Caleb Lee Hutchinson win this?

Posted Sunday, May 20, 2018 by RODNEY HO/ on his AJC Radio & TV Talk blog

Tonight we got to enjoy the 16th "American Idol" finale performance episode and it does very little to clarify who will win for me.

Nobody stunk up the joint. That almost never happens at this point. I liked the original versions more than Katy Perry, who was surprisingly tough on them in the first round.

I still think country singer Caleb Lee Hutchinson of Paulding County has the inside track to win it all but there are fair arguments for either singer-songwriter Maddie Poppe or country/R&B hybrid Gabby Barrett to take it home as well.

You can vote until 9 a.m. EST Monday morning via text, the website and the app. This is not a week of real-time voting as the past three weeks have been.

All three singers drew huge crowds during their hometown visits, which I'm sure was heartening for "Idol" producers.

During the interview with radio personality Bobby Bones, Caleb said he was inspired to lose weight by the death of his great uncle who was like a grandfather to him but had poor health due to his weight and died during Caleb's high school senior year. The uncle purchased his first electric guitar.

Anyway, I spoke with Caleb for a couple of minutes just three hours before the show's finale. He sounded calm and collected, however nervous he may be on the inside.

"I'm feeling good," he said to me right after the final dress rehearsal. "I'm just trying to tell myself it's like any other show we've done so far. I'm ready to go out and do the real thing."

Caleb was blown away by the reception he got during his hometown visit. "I really didn't expect that many people there," he said. "The hometown support was overwhelming. It really put in perspective how many people out there support me. It was very encouraging."

During the concert portion, "it felt like Woodstock or something. I couldn't see where the crowd ended."

As for his single "Johnny Cash Heart," which is outselling those by Maddie Poppe and Gabby Barrett so far based on the ITunes chart, he said it just spoke to him.

"When I heard it, I really dug the lyrics and it's a song I really connected to. I just decided to put my spin on it and do it."

The readers of both my blog and that of MJ's Big Blog are big Maddie fans but that may simply be indicative of the readers, not necessarily votes.

Also, if you want to know the performances on finale night Monday, MJ has the spoilers here.

Winners Single

Caleb Lee Hutchinson  – "Johnny Cash Heart." He had a false start but it didn't hurt him. He sounds absolutely comfortable with this song. It's right in his pocket. It's earnest and warm and evokes the past. Katy heard the song in her car and thought it was an interesting song but gave him a genuine critique, sort of: "I wish you'd embody it as Caleb Lee Hutchinson's song. I didn't feel it was your best performance." Luke said he felt tight. (Wait? Was that a negative comment from Luke???) Grade: B-plus

Gabby Barrett  –  "Rivers Deep" She said she wants to be a country star. She is aware that she sounds like Carrie Underwood and has worked hard to prove she is her own person. Bobby Bones also recommends she cut the cord from her dad once she moves to Nashville. She didn't sound too happy about that. While the song, as I noted in an earlier entry, is a weird blend of gospel, R&B and country but Gabby does her darndest to sell it. Again, I have no idea how to categorize this song. Katy said she is struggling a bit to figure out how to work a new song and make it her own. Lionel said to pick a song based on how it's staged versus the studio. (He basically said she picked the wrong song? She had a choice of four.) Grade: B-plus

Maddie Poppe  – "Going Going Gone" Bobby Bones felt like she didn't have much confidence when he first talked to her. But she seems to have found her confidence since America and the judges accepted her. The live version of this song highlights her utterly pretty voice with an utterly pretty song that is very Hot AC radio friendly. I'm all in. Luke said she looked super comfortable. Katy said "Idol" is a bubble and wants her to play the A-game outside the bubble so she's going to push her. She liked this song the most of the three. I agree. Grade: A/A-minus


Caleb Lee Hutchinson  – "Don’t Close Your Eyes" by Keith Whitley. He chose a favorite song of his mom's to bring back. This is his wheelhouse: sincere and a little melancholy. But will it generate votes though? I'm not sure. I do appreciate that Katy didn't agree with Bobby Bones saying he did fine the first time around. Ryan Seacrest inexplicably noted that Cindy from Norcross in an old-school envelope had asked him to sing the Whitley song. "If I don't win, it's Cindy's fault," Caleb joked. Grade: B-plus

Gabby Barrett   – "Little Red Wagon" by Miranda Lambert. I always found Gabby like a merge of Miranda and Carrie. She can do songs like these with a bit of high-NRG attitude really well. I like her more doing this than ballads in general. This will probably help her with votes in my mind than Caleb's pick but then again, I may not fit the voting populace. Who knows? Katy said this was better than her first performance of this song. Both Katy and Luke felt she didn't quite loosen up enough. Grade: A-minus

Maddie Poppe  – "Don’t Ever Let Your Children Grow Up" (Original) I like this type of stuff (e.g. Brandi Carlile) so I'd buy Maddie's album for sure. I wish she's be a bit more expressive but the song works for her. Heck, it is her. Sweet and emotive. Katy liked she took the risk by showing off her songwriting skills. Grade: B-plus/A-minus

Katy was asked by Ryan about round two vs. round one. "I think Maddie really killed the first one. Caleb killed this last round. I'm waiting for Gabby to do the takeover in the last one. The first round I thought was a disaster. The second round I thought they got their confidence back."

And how about this for a weird time filler: reprising four originals by four past contestants. First up: Harper Grace, who didn't even make the semifinals, followed by top 14 Johnny Brens, then top 10 Michelle Sussett and finally top 7 Catie Turner. Catie's original "21st Century Machine" is the best of the four.

Hometown Dedication

Caleb Lee Hutchinson  – "Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash. I was around for a good part of his hometown visit (which included a truly massive crowd in Dallas) but didn't make the final cut. But I didn't realize he ended up at the Braves game that night. Cool! This is a classic song and he has no problem rockin' it. He even moves around the stage - a little. It' a great song pick, a great way to jimmy some votes. Did he seal the deal? Maybe... Katy liked him having fun. Grade: A/A-minus

Gabby Barrett  – "Don’t Stop Believin'" by Journey. A lot of tears during her hometown visit that might garner her votes. She also picked a super crowd pleaser that transcends generations. It's also pure pop, which shows her ability to do multiple genres but muddies her lane again. Surprise! Steve Perry is there applauding her. "She was amazing!" he said, noting it's the best rendition he's ever heard or some hyperbole like that. Hmm... the producers clearly want her to win, don't they? Grade: B-plus

Maddie Poppe  – "Landslide" by Fleetwood Mac. One of my favorite sad Fleetwood Mac songs. She is super consistent, which can be a good thing - or not. I really liked this version. She just knows herself and how to embody a song. Grade: A-minus/B-plus

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About the Author

Rodney Ho covers radio and television for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.