On Thursday night's (March 4) "American Idol" results show, amid the carnage and the castaways, Danny Gokey performed "My Best Days Are Ahead of Me," the first proper single from his just-released debut album, My Best Days. It was a pretty sage move by show producers, and not just because Gokey has a disc to promote. The newly departed "Idol" hopefuls could learn a thing or two from the song's inspirational message. And from Gokey himself.

Rocking a leather jacket, jeans, a burgundy shirt and his signature specs, Gokey's gravelly soul voice was warmly received as he sang the peppy country/pop tune about the power of positive thinking. "I can be whatever I want to be/ My best days are ahead of me," he crooned over a twanging pedal-steel riff. "I've got sunsets to witness, dreams to dance with/ And beaches to walk on and lovers to kiss."

Asked why he went country for his first album, Gokey — who tried to get an invite from Ellen DeGeneres to dance on her show after his performance — said it was suggested by one of last year's mentors, country icon Randy Travis. "When I did 'Jesus Take the Wheel,' he came up to me after ... and he said, 'Have you ever considered doing country?' And I started telling him how country influenced me when I was younger ... and he said, 'Well, you need to do country. The amount of soul and passion you put into it, the fans would embrace you and love you.' "

After spending most of his "Idol" run being tagged as "the guy with the tragedy" — a reference to the death of his young wife Sophia four weeks before his audition — Gokey said he wanted to come out with a first single that showed how much hope "Idol" gave him. "I just found out the writer of the song lost his wife too and he wrote this song a few months after she passed away. And without me knowing it, I picked it up, I recorded it and put it on radio. ... It's an anthem for me. I'm excited about life again."

Ever since he was eliminated from "Idol" last season, Gokey has been working tirelessly to make his dreams a reality. Over the summer, he began meeting with Nashville record execs and announced plans to reinvent himself as a country singer, telling MTV News that "country music kind of houses the message that I like ... and it carries a lot of meaning for me. So I never thought about it before, but I could see myself doing it, if we could just get the twang right."

In September, he officially signed with RCA Nashville (he was the last of season eight's final four to land a record deal) and began work on his debut album. In November, during a phone interview with hometown radio station FM 106.1, he unveiled the first song from the record, a ballad called "It's Only," which was written by Lady Antebellum's Dave Haywood and Charles Kelley and produced by Mark Bright, who had previously worked with Gokey's fellow "Idol" alum Carrie Underwood.

Gokey described the song as his favorite off the album. "It has such a touching lyric. It's so beautiful," he said. "I love all the songs that appear on my CD, but this one ... when I sing this song, a passion comes out of me. ... I feel it when I sing it."

He performed at the venerable Grand Ole Opry and shot a video for "Best Days," which replaced "It's Only" as the first single from his record. The song began climbing country radio's top 40 chart, and just last month, it was announced that Gokey would serve as the opening act on Sugarland's spring tour. The country makeover, it would seem, is complete.

In the meantime, he continues to work with Sophia's Heart, the charitable organization he established in honor of his late wife. In addition to using funds to provide relief to the victims of January's Haitian earthquake, the organization plans to launch a Nashville-based music and arts program this year.

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