'American Idol' crowns winner, judges react to Arthur Gunn not performing at finale

·6 min read

"American Idol" has crowned a winner after a nail-biter season finale.

Final three contestants Grace Kinstler, Willie Spence and Chayce Beckham took the "Idol" stage for the last time during Sunday's show, which aired live coast-to-coast on ABC. As usual, judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie and Luke Bryan offered feedback — but ultimately, fans voting from home decided the winner.

Past contestants from this season also returned, giving several performances to fill the three-hour show. Missing among them, however, was former runner-up Arthur Gunn, who returned to the competition this season in a comeback twist. At the last minute, former contestant Graham DeFranco stepped up for a duet with Sheryl Crow.

"He literally came to cheer," Bryan said of DeFranco, during a virtual Q&A post-show. "He was there to support Chayce, and we're pulling him out of the crowd going, 'You're gonna sing with Sheryl Crow.' And he's like, 'Hell yeah!' "

As for why Gunn was absent, Richie said the judges "don't even know what happened." Perry chimed in that "American Idol" is "a spicy show."

"It's a live, three-hour show. And, quite honestly, we've had a very colorful season. Curveballs galore," she continued. "But Graham DeFranco? I mean, killed it. Sang so well, and I was so glad he was there."

Here's what went down, including the surprise return of a fan favorite:

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Grace Kinstler

Kinstler, 20, took the stage first, with Céline Dion's "All by Myself." Perry said the judges chose this song for the college student so she could show her vulnerability in addition to her powerful voice.

And according to the judges, Kinstler may have outdone Dion with her rendition.

"You did not just take that one higher than Céline even sings it," Perry marveled. "This is a connecting song and, whew, I felt you."

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Kinstler later returned with Whitney Houston's "I Have Nothing," after a touching video of her visiting her hometown in Illinois. During her visit, Kinstler read personal notes and reflections her father handwrote before his death.

The young singer started off the classic song a cappella, before building to a booming crescendo with full accompaniment.

"Listen," Perry told viewers. "If you think your favorites are safe, and you don’t vote, think again. Grace just sang her heart out. I don’t want to see you complaining on Twitter if you want Grace to win."

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Willie Spence

For Spence's first song, the judges requested he sing Ray Charles' “Georgia on my Mind." Bryan complimented the caretaker for transporting the crowd to the contestant's home state with his smooth, jazzy performance.

"I can smell magnolias," Bryan exclaimed. "We’re at the finale, and you have delivered since the day you walked into the audition. You delivered every single time, and I see you doing that the rest of your life, buddy."

Spence's second performance, however, was where the waterworks came in full force. After an emotional video of him visiting his hometown of Douglas, Georgia, that saw the contestant hold his mother as she sobbed in his arms with joy, Spence sang Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

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Perry, who became a mother herself last year, was a puddle of tears by the end of the song.

"We are so proud of you. And then seeing you with your mother just melted my heart. I love you," she said, while choking up.

Spence, 21, started crying too, so Perry walked onto the stage, no longer social distancing to offer him a tissue.

“It’s amazing," Spence's mother said from the audience, while sobbing. "I just love him."

Chayce Beckham

Beckham, 24, performed judges' pick "Blackbird" by The Beatles. According to Perry, the judges "chose that song for you because it’s a classic, small but mighty song."

Richie praised the heavy machinery operator on his identifiable sound, while Bryan made a promise to hang out after the show.

"I’m saying it right now," Bryan told the rugged country crooner. "Me and you, you’ve earned your bass fishing trip. Book the date. We got it. Win or lose."

In a video before his second performance, Beckham returned to his desert hometown of Apple Valley, California, and became emotional while reflecting on how far he's come in his life. Beckham has been open on the show about his struggles with alcohol prior to "Idol."

He then sang Chris Stapleton's "Fire Away," earning high praise from the judges.

"Sometimes God has to turn up the volume on your life to see if you’re listening," Perry said. "And you are listening. So, Chayce, keep listening."

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Murphy medley stands out among finale filler

Before Seacrest revealed the winner, past contestants took the stage with celebrity artists like Fallout Boy and Chaka Khan. Among them was the return of Murphy, who captured fans' hearts before his shocking cut before the top 24.

The elimination sent “shockwaves through the 'Idol' sphere," said Seacrest, who noted the Twitter outrage that erupted after the judges' decision.

"I’m gonna talk to my lawyers!" Perry exclaimed, as each judge jokingly blamed the other two for the unpopular verdict.

But during the finale, Murphy got his time on the big "Idol" stage, performing original songs "Am I Still Mine?” and “The Painted Man." After the medley, the contestant came off just as humble and grateful as earlier in the season.

“Thank you," he said. "It’s good to see you all again."

The final two duke it out

The final two came down to Spence and Beckham, with each singer giving one more solo performance before Seacrest announced the winner.

Beckham took on "Afterglow" by Ed Sheeran, which he sang "like a rock star," according to Perry.

"Congratulations twice," added Richie. "One for surviving this amazing class of 2021, and, secondly, welcome to your career. You’ve got an amazing future, my friend. We’re very proud of you."

Spence performed a rousing performance of Cynthia Erivo's "Stand Up," which he sang earlier this season to high praise from the judges.

The judges thanked Spence for blessing "Idol" with his voice.

"We just love you," Bryan said. "We love that voice, and I love where it comes from. It comes from God, and it comes from a soul within that I pray I can find one day."

And the winner is....

Finally, Seacrest announced the results, revealing Beckham as the winner. He launched into a performance of his original song "23" to celebrate.

"This win means everything, not only to me, but also to my family," Beckham said in a virtual Q&A post-show, adding that he hopes his victory can inspire fellow blue collar workers.

"That's who I do it for," he continued. "It's for those people. To me, it's the world, but I know it means more to those people. To have a champion in that sense."

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'American Idol' crowns winner, judges talk Arthur Gunn not performing