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This season of ‘American Idol’ was a close competition — until one very strategic move by the winner

“American Idol” winner Chayce Beckham, left, performs with third-place finisher Grace Kinstler, musical guest Macklemore and runner-up Willie Spence on the season finale. (Eric McCandless/ABC)

Sometimes, while watching the “American Idol” finale, it’s difficult to predict who will win.

This was not one of those times.

On Sunday night, the long-running competition series crowned 24-year-old Chayce Beckham the champion of Season 19. The race was pretty close this year, as runner-up Willie Spence and third-place finisher Grace Kinstler were also deemed front-runners at various times. But during the penultimate episode, Beckham made a strategic move that all but ensured his victory: He doubled down on country, returning to the genre he started out with on the show, and sang an original song that wound up topping the iTunes country chart.

As fans know, contestants can never go wrong by turning to country music, a genre that is historically a favorite among singing competition viewers — and generally the only format that continues to regularly provide a road to success, from Season 4’s Carrie Underwood to Season 16’s Gabby Barrett.

With streaming success and a debut hit, ‘American Idol’ finalist Gabby Barrett has become a country music anomaly

Beckham, a heavy machinery operator from Apple Valley, Calif., told the judges during his first audition that he played reggae music with a band but had recently switched things up and started playing solo acoustic guitar. He performed “What Brings Life Also Kills” by Texas band Kolton Moore & the Clever Few, and the judges were so blown away that Katy Perry immediately predicted he would make the Top 5: “You sound like the heart of America,” she said.

During the Hollywood and “showstopper” rounds, in which the field was narrowed to the Top 24 singers, Beckham increasingly homed in on country, showing off his skills with Chris Stapleton’s “You Should Probably Leave” and Tyler Childers’s “Hard Times.” When he performed the latter, show mentor Bobby Bones, who hosts the biggest country music morning show in America, remarked that Beckham didn’t necessarily look like “a country guy.” Beckham joked that it was probably because he was the only country-leaning contestant who wasn’t wearing cowboy boots.

“As long as you sing country music from the heart — because it’s all about the message and the authenticity of it — you’re country,” Bones assured him.

For much of the competition, Beckham’s genre and artist choices were all over the map: Ed Sheeran’s “Afterglow,” Bob Marley’s “Waiting in Vain,” Bryan Adams’s “(Everything I Do) I Do It For You,” Incubus’s “Drive.” But during the May 16 penultimate episode, competing in the final four, Beckham went full country again with Zac Brown Band’s “Colder Weather” and a reprise of his earlier Stapleton song.

Then, the key move: When the final four — Beckham, Spence, Kinstler and Casey Bishop — had to perform a song that would be released as a single, Beckham was the only contestant who wrote the song himself. The lyrics on the track, titled “23,” were very personal. (“Now I’m 23 and there ain’t nobody who can drink like me/Soon I’ll be 24, and the Lord knows that I can’t drink no more.”) Beckham spoke throughout the season about getting sober after hitting “rock bottom” last year and crashing his car while driving drunk, which led to a DUI charge shortly before his “Idol” audition.

“23” clearly struck a chord, as it rocketed up iTunes to the No. 1 spot on the country chart and in the Top 10 on the all-genre chart. It remained popular in the days leading up to the finale, earning more than 293,000 streams on Spotify. (The next most-streamed song from an “Idol” finalist was Bishop’s, which had about 83,000.)

With a fast-rising single, Beckham was nearly a lock — and that was before the finale, when he not only sang another Stapleton song but also got to perform a celebrity duet with recent Nashville phenom Luke Combs. The other finalists, Kinstler and Spence, were excellent singers and drew lots of praise from the judges, but they had no way to catch up to Beckham’s momentum.

The judges, who had been gushing for weeks about Beckham’s relatability and connection to the audience by showing his “real” self — Luke Bryan declared him the front-runner many weeks ago — ran out of compliments. “I don’t think there’s anything left to say, Chayce,” Perry said. “You had this dream, and now you’re living it.”

“I’m going to say congratulations twice,” Lionel Richie added. “One, for surviving this amazing class of 2021. And secondly, welcome to your career.”

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