American Idol has always featured moving backstories, but as the series’ 17-season history has shown, a sob story is nothing if a contestant doesn’t have the goods to back it up. Twenty-seven-year old singer-songwriter and abuse survivor Wade Cota definitely has those goods. As he wisely put it, “Nobody without a broken heart can write a song.” And his mom also wisely told him in the Idol waiting room — loosely quoting original winner Kelly Clarkson — “You are proof that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
This Sunday on Idol, Wade told a harrowing tale of a tragic childhood, but he channeled all of his pain — and his love for his mother — into a stunning audition that showcased what judge Katy Perry said was “one of the most unique voices” she’d ever heard.
“My real dad — or, I’m going to restart that — my biological father, he was the devil,” Wade bluntly told the show’s producers Sunday. He revealed that his father beat him, his mother and his two older siblings for years, leaving him with a scar on his face and a permanent crack in his skull. His mother wasn’t allowed to leave the house with all three children, and it took her two years to finally plot their escape. She ended up raising them alone in poverty — “We don’t have a lot, but we love each other so much” — and now all Wade longs to do is repay her for her suffering and sacrifice. “I want to be remembered for something, and it might as well be making my mom proud,” he said.
I have a feeling Wade will also be remembered for his incredible voice — a weathered, world-weary husk that evokes Tom Waits, Louis Armstrong and Leonard Cohen, but is definitely all his own. “I was not expecting that other person to jump out of your body. … You brought me a character, and it’s an unusual character because it sounds like you,” judge Lionel Richie told Wade after hearing his cover of George Ezra’s “Blame It on Me.” Said Luke Bryan, “You have your own thing, like Johnny Cash does. I hear your voice in movie soundtracks. I want there to be a No Country for Old Men 2 and you sing every song.” I would absolutely buy that soundtrack. And I will be rooting for Wade as he goes through to Hollywood.
Wade was a Sunday standout, but the episode was so talent-packed that the judges actually declared they’d found this season’s champion more than once. These were the other highlights:
Laine Hardy, 18: “The Weight”
Avid Idol viewers will remember this handsome Louisiana kid from last season, when he was a frontrunner that Luke predicted would win the entire show. He ended floundering in Hollywood Week and going home early. But this week, Laine returned with shiny new merch and shinier teeth — but not, supposedly, to score a shiny golden ticket. He claimed to be there only to accompany his friend Ashton Gill on guitar. Ashton got through with her solid if nasal cover of Chris Stapleton’s “Broken Halos,” but we all knew where this was really going. Of course the judges begged Laine to audition, and of course they begged him to come to Hollywood again. I’m sure this was all staged, but who cares? It was good TV, and I’m happy to see Laine back. And if he goes far this season, he’ll follow in the footsteps of reluctant but successful auditioners like David Cook, Nick Fradiani, Colton Dixon, and Blake Lewis.
Austin Michael Robinson, 15: “Your Man”
This “country Justin Bieber” sure was cute — more in a ’70s-teen-idol Leif Garrett way than like the actual Biebs — but his diction was so slurry that I barely recognized the Josh Turner “babylockthemdoors” song that had made Season 10’s Scott McCreery a star. Austin showcased better rodeo skills than singing skills, when he whipped out a lasso and roped Katy.
Jake Puliti, 20: “This Is How We Do It”
I thought this was a typical WGWG song-flipping stunt, but I was highly entertained by Katy, who busted out a repertoire of dorky dance movies to this Montell Jordan hit, including a breakdance backspin, the Worm, the Running Man and the Floss. (On the latter, she was not nearly as good as that viral Backpack Kid who accompanied her on SNL, but hey, she tried.) “You were great, and that’s why I felt the freedom to be my true self on the dance floor,” she told Jake. But I think it’s a bad sign that the only thing I remember from this audition are Katy’s focus-pulling antics.
Shawn Robinson, 21: “Who You Are”
This is already a competitive season, but Shawn could go far — because on Idol, likability is everything. And the judges really liked this kid, smiling ear-to-ear throughout his earnest Jessie J performance. Luke called Shawn a “precious person,” and Katy called him a “ray of light.” Said Lionel, “I’m in love with your personality.” I think America will fall in love too.
Nate Walker, 18: “Say Something”
This pal of last season’s top three finalist Gabby Barrett had a cool, jazzy, vibey piano take on the A Great Big World weeper that sort of reminded me of a male Fantasia. There was just the right amount of quirk. Luke, normally not a fan of excessive runs, was “massively excited” and surprisingly appreciated the liberties Nate took with the song. And Lionel called Nate “anointed.”
Riley Thompson, 16: “Oh Daddy”
This adorable alt-country girl, who recently appeared on USA Network talent show Real Country, is real country indeed. I loved her squeaky rasp and beyond-her-years original song; she came across like a baby Dolly Parton mixed with a bit of Shivaree’s Ambrosia Parsley or Rilo Kiley’s Jenny Lewis. Katy called her a “country Lana Del Rey.” I’ll have my eye on this one. She is what they call on this show a “package artist.”
Clay Page, 24: “Die a Happy Man”
This “gentle ginger” country singer had a less-is-more approach that frankly didn’t grab my attention, but the judges saw something special in him. Katy called him “real country” and a “pure deal.” Lionel liked that his Thomas Rhett cover didn’t have “whole lot of hollering and screaming; you’re just telling the story.” And Luke, the panel’s obvious country expert, especially liked what he heard. “You have a perfectly not-trying-too-hard delivery that’s so easy to listen to. You might be [the country genre’s] representation thus far. You are not the best country singer in the world, but you do not have to be. I’m sold completely,” Luke raved.
Drake McCain, 17: “His Eye Is on the Sparrow”
This sweet, freckle-faced Piggy Wiggly worker with the half-foot-high Kid ‘N Play haircut moved pastor’s daughter Katy so much with his church hymn, she started singing along with him. Drake almost literally took Katy to church! They even continued dueting with a bit of “Oh Happy Day.” Drake is very young and very green, but the fact that he could so easily harmonize with an A-list pop star, right on the spot, was impressive. He has huge potential.
Madison Vandenburg, 16: “Speechless”
If there’d been a drinking game where I’d taken a shot every time the judges compared this talented teen to the O.G. Idol, I would’ve gotten pretty wasted Sunday. “I think you’re as good as Kelly Clarkson!” “I’m witnessing the next Kelly Clarkson!” “You could be the next Kelly Clarkson!” “I’m witnessing the next Kelly Clarkson!” But Madison’s warm, beautiful tone, unforced delivery, maturity and massive range on her Dan + Shay cover was indeed truly special. Katy and Luke got goosebumps (or “goosies,” as ex-judge J.Lo used to say), and all three judges gave her a standing ovation. Madison may not come in first place, like Kelly, but I predict she’ll make the top 10.
Jeremiah Lloyd Harmon, 25: “Almost Heaven”
I’d barely recovered from Wade Cota’s sob-inducing hardship tale when this wonderful singer-songwriter came along and reduced me to a blubbering mess all over again. This pastor’s son, who works as a humble janitor in his dad’s small-town church, realized he was gay at age 9 and came out to his parents only three years ago. They didn’t take the news well, and Jeremiah is still racked with guilt. “The hardest part for me is seeing how difficult it is for my family,” he said. When Jeremiah played his original ballad, which was about “questioning if there’s a place for me and people like me in heaven,” I was floored. So were the judges. Lionel told him, “We are blessed to have you on American Idol.” I truly believe “Almost Heaven” could be a new, needed empowerment anthem for LGBTQ church kids. This was a great TV moment and a great close to Sunday’s show.
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