Country nights on [url id="/news/topics/a/american_idol/"]"American Idol"[/url] are often the great equalizer. And Tuesday's Grand Ole Opry-themed show was no different, with such seeming also-rans as Anoop Desai and Matt Giraud stealing the show, while front-runners Danny Gokey and Lil Rounds hit their first real speed bumps of the competition. And Adam Lambert? Well, as usual he just kind of confused and delighted (almost) everyone with another over-the-top performance.
With genial mentor and country music legend Randy Travis giving them guidance, the 11 remaining contestants mostly chose contemporary country hits, with Texan Michael Sarver up first, taking a swing at Garth Brooks' challenging "Ain't Going Down ('Til the Sun Comes Up)." He managed to wrap his tongue around the boot-scooter with an avalanche of lyrics, though at times he seemed like he was going to run out of breath trying to cram all the words in.
Kara DioGuardi and Randy Jackson liked the fun song choice, but weren't sure it really showed off anything new in Sarver's vocal chops or range, and Simon Cowell complained that he couldn't understand the words. "You could have been singing in Norwegian," he griped, calling the performance clumsy and saying that Sarver came over as a likeable country karaoke singer worth a 1.2 on a 10 point scale.
Teenager Allison Iraheta is known for her rocking vocals, but she easily adapted her preternaturally mature voice to Patty Loveless' "Blame It on Your Heart," tossing some twang into her gritty tone.
"I am starting to think you could sing the alphabet and sing it well," Kara said, praising Iraheta for bringing her unique spin to the song. Simon liked it, though he thought it was a bit tuneless at times, adding, "You're rock solid, verging on precocious ... precocious is good." Randy said it was "dope!"
Kris Allen went for a Bob Dylan tune famously covered by Brooks, "Make You Feel My Love," tapping into the sensitive ballad's emotion and reworking the tune into a candlelit, Elton John-style piano weeper, complete with a soaring falsetto note at the end.
Paula was pleasantly surprised, calling it an "honest, pure, vulnerable" performance with a few pitch problems, but a smart choice overall. For Simon, in a word, it was terrific, a great choice of song in which Allen took control and provided the first glimpse that he might have a shot at winning the competition.
Perhaps the biggest challenge of the night was for Lil Rounds, who admitted she knew very little about country music. She chose Martina McBride's challenging "Independence Day," bringing some soulful energy to it after coming out a bit tentative at first, then soaring into the chorus, which she turned into a cowboy gospel wail.
Randy called the song choice "interesting and ambitious," and said the front end was a bit iffy and the whole thing felt a bit uncomfortable. Kara gave her props for not picking the obvious choice (like, say, Dolly Parton's "I Will Always Love You"), and Simon, repeatedly referring her to as "Little," said, "It kind of came over as if you were one of those girls who have to sing at a wedding and are forced to sing a song someone has requested and felt and looked uncomfortable."
Another front-runner who seemed likely to be tested on the country night was Broadway rocker Adam Lambert, who chose Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire," which he gave a Middle Eastern flair that threw Travis for a major loop. With finger cymbals and a snaking guitar line guiding him, Lambert wailed the song in his signature falsetto, as if performing in an Egyptian country-and-western bar.
Kara said the whole thing was a bit strange and confusing but that she kind of enjoyed it, while Paula likened it to Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir." "What the hell was that?" Simon wondered, calling the performance "absolute indulgent rubbish ... really, really horrific."
Travis thought Scott MacIntyre's decision to cover "Wild Angels" by Martina McBride was a bad one, but when Mac got behind the grand piano, he seemed comfortable with the song's uplifting, spiritual message, easily transitioning from the ballad-like intro to a more rocking finish.
Paula called it another impressive performance, but said she's starting to feel that the piano is becoming a crutch and that MacIntyre needs to engage the audience more. Simon completely disagreed, calling Abdul's comments "stupid," setting off a tense argument on the panel about whether MacIntyre should stand up and sing something a bit different or stay behind the ivories.
Alexis Grace picked Dolly Parton's iconic "Jolene," giving the song an urgent feel with her husky, forceful vocals. Randy loved it despite the pitch problems, but said the attempt to bend it in a bluesy direction didn't work. Paula didn't mind the pitch problems and appreciated seeing the softer side of Grace, though Simon said it sounded too much like Parton's version and was forgettable.
Maybe we were onto something with our story last week about the competition's [article id="1606966"]Christian singers[/article]: It was hard to ignore worship leader Danny Gokey's pointed choice of Carrie Underwood's "Jesus Take the Wheel." One of this year's front-runners, Gokey struggled to get the tempo right in rehearsals, but by the time he hit the stage he applied his signature soulful vocals to the car-crash ballad, coming out tentative at first and then exploding into the chorus with his powerhouse gospel-edged wails.
"When you hit your stride, it's like none other," Kara said, though she called the front end unspectacular. Paula disagreed, saying Gokey hit the right balance. Despite their ugly fight earlier in the night, Simon agreed with Paula, saying he liked the shading, but hated Gokey's white "polar expedition" jacket.
And then there was Anoop Desai, who admitted country was not really his forte. 'Noop Dogg tried "Always on My Mind," slowing down the tune Willie Nelson famously covered and turning it into a winning, velvety R&B ballad.
"Anoop is back!" Paula said, praising Desai's interpretation of the tune after his failure to capture the magic during Michael Jackson week. Simon praised him for going from "zero to hero," with one of his favorite performances of the night, even going so far as to take back last week's criticism that Desai didn't deserve to be in the competition.
Megan Joy Corkrey got into her comfort zone with Patsy Cline's "Walkin' After Midnight," giving the country classic her signature twist, with a jazzy, quavering 1940s vocal, some hip swivels and a big, bright smile.
Randy expected it to be a train wreck but was quite impressed. "Perfect song, perfect look," Kara said, praising Corkrey's elegant styling and ability to overcome a nasty flu to perform so well despite a visit to the hospital.
The night ended with Matt Giraud, who chose Underwood's "So Small" and sat down at the piano for another one of his blue-eyed-soul tours de force, adding some grit to the ballad.
"You're an artist, you're a true talent, your heart pours on that piano, you worked the dynamics of that song ... amazing," Kara said. Simon added that he didn't think Giraud has gotten enough credit for his vocals to date and thought that although he's similar to Gokey, he outsang the competition and gave one of the night's best performances.
Following the elimination Wednesday night (March 18), which will feature a duet between Underwood and Travis and a performance from Brad Paisley, the remaining 10 contestants will have secured their spots on this summer's "Idol" tour.
Get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.