“American Idol” hit a high note in season four with the discovery of country music superstar Carrie Underwood.
Arriving at the St. Louis auditions bubbling with stories about life on her family’s Oklahoma farm, she exuded a girl-next-door charm that, along with prodigious pipes, quickly distinguished her from the hopeful masses. Not even the notoriously prickly Simon Cowell could contain his excitement, boldly (and correctly) predicting as early as top 11 week that Underwood would not only win the competition but go on to outsell every one of the show’s champs.
Thanks to a few tweaks to the “Idol” formula, the rest of that year’s crop of talent was admirably diverse. A new rule upped the eligible audition age from 24 to 28, paving the way for the arrivals of runner-up Bo Bice and sixth-place finisher Constantine Maroulis. The pair became the show’s first male rockers and would ultimately inspire a car dealership serviceman named Chris Daughtry to give “Idol” a try the following year.
“Bo and I weren’t kids,” says Maroulis, who went on to earn a Tony nomination for his starring role in the Broadway musical “Rock of Ages.” “We were men. We brought a very different energy to the show. A little swagger.”
But not, insists Bice, a rocker rivalry.
“Connie and I were kind of pitted against each other because we were both long-haired guys from rock bands,” says Bice, now a married father of three who’s touring to support his third album, the appropriately titled “3.” “But we were roommates on the show and behind the scenes, we had a blast. Neither of us was big on the BS.”
Another change in 2005: After season three’s predominantly female lineup, an equal number of guys and girls competed in the semifinals and advanced to the top 12. Among those who made the cut were Florida mail carrier Vonzell Solomon, New Jersey music teacher Anwar Robinson and baby-faced student Anthony Fedorov, whose inspirational story — he overcame a debilitating tracheotomy in order to pursue his dream — captured the public’s imagination and ultimately earned him fourth place.
The season’s lightning-rod contestant proved to be Scott Savol, an Ohio corrections officer who, despite reviews from the judges ranging from lukewarm to dismissive, managed to outlast heartthrob Maroulis.
The surprising upset baffled fans, who were quick to blame a snarky new website that had thrown its dubious support behind Savol.
“That was the first big moment for Vote for the Worst,” says Richard Rushfield, author of “American Idol: The Untold Story.” “If you look at press reports back then, they all said it was because of Vote for the Worst, but the numbers do not bear that out. They’re just not big enough to have that kind of impact.”
Underwood’s impact on the show that launched her career, however, can’t be overstated. Everyone from season five’s Kellie Pickler to season 10’s Lauren Alaina has tried to emulate her soaring countrified vocals and dreamt of matching her success.
But, says Bice, “Carrie’s proven to the world what I already knew: There’s no one else quite like her.”
TOP 5 HIGHLIGHTS
- In what is still one of “Idol’s” most talked-about performances, Bo Bice goes back to basics, rendering an a cappella version of Badland’s “In a Dream” and clinching his spot in the finale.
- For the year you were born week, Constantine Maroulis tears into Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and showcases the theatrical flair that would go on to make him a Tony-nominated Broadway star.
- Former Miami Dolphins cheerleader Nadia Turner proves her mettle with a stirring performance of “You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me,” prompting Simon Cowell to declare, “In a competition full of hamburgers, you are a steak.”
- Sporting big rocker hair, Carrie Underwood steps out of her country comfort zone and unleashes a flawless top 11 performance of Heart’s “Alone,” and Cowell declared the competition already over.
- Before being named season four’s winner, Underwood shares the stage with Rascal Flatts, and Bo Bice teams up with Lynyrd Skynyrd, and a tradition of starry finale duets was born.
In six short years, Carrie Underwood has not only conquered the country music scene, she’s made it look easy. With 13 No. 1 singles, five Grammys, two Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year awards, and an induction into the Grand Ole Opry — to name just a few of her accolades — she’s “Idol’s” most decorated alum. After a busy 2010 in which she packed arenas in support of her third multi-platinum-selling album, “Play On,” and married hockey star Mike Fisher, Underwood branched out creatively this year, co-starring in her first film, April’s “Soul Surfer.” Even in success, though, she hasn’t forgotten her “Idol” roots, taking the stage at April’s ACM’s with new judge Steven Tyler to duet on a mash-up of her hit “Undo It” and Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.” The megastar is recording her fourth album, which is expected to drop later this year.