During the Season 20 premiere of “American Idol” in February, 23-year-old country singer HunterGirl impressed the judges — so much that they awarded her with a “platinum ticket,” a new gimmick that allowed three standout contestants to skip a round of the competition to give them a better shot at getting to the top 24, when viewers can vote.
“This is my fifth year doing this, and that is my favorite female country voice I’ve heard in five years,” Luke Bryan announced after HunterGirl’s first audition, asking, “This is the year of the girl country singer, right?”
Fellow judges Lionel Richie and Katy Perry also lavished praise on HunterGirl throughout the season, repeatedly telling her that she was a star. On Sunday night’s finale, HunterGirl indeed made it to the final two contestants — but at the end of the telecast, host Ryan Seacrest announced the winner was 20-year-old country singer Noah Thompson.
And yet, even with HunterGirl (real name: Hunter Wolkonowski) as an obvious favorite, Thompson’s victory was not surprising. Neither is one of the reasons for his win: Bryan may have thought it was the year of the country girl, but on “American Idol,” it has become increasingly difficult for anyone to triumph over the country boy.
Thompson is now the fourth consecutive male “Idol” champion who is also a country singer, following Trent Harmon (Season 15), Laine Hardy (Season 17) and Chayce Beckham (Season 19). The only female country singer winner in “Idol” history is Carrie Underwood, who was named the winner in Season 4 nearly two decades ago.
Reality singing competitions have always favored country singers, a fact that frequently frustrates viewers who don’t enjoy the genre; it’s rumored that Adam Levine felt the same way, and it may have contributed to why he left “The Voice.” But the country fan base is loyal, and Nashville is a particularly welcoming place for singers after reality shows. Near the start of the finale, Perry theorized that HunterGirl and Thompson might split the country vote and hand the win to 20-year-old singer-songwriter Leah Marlene — though any longtime viewer could have told her that was unlikely. (Marlene wound up in third place.)
On “Idol,” male country singers especially seem to have the edge, a fact that even the judges recognize. Thompson, from Louisa, Ky., started off the show seemingly terrified of his own shadow. His storyline was that he had no confidence and was so insecure that his co-worker had to sign him up to audition. “My family, they believe in me. The guys I work with believe in me. I just never believed in myself,” he told the camera.
But in his first audition, the judges were dazzled by his take on Kameron Marlowe’s “Giving You Up.” And they really loved that he was a construction worker who wanted to succeed so he could support his baby son.
“You are the American Dream,” Perry told him. Never one to back down from an inspirational story, Seacrest later introduced him by saying, “Here comes Noah, a long way from hanging Sheetrock to the Hollywood stage.”
As the episodes went on, Thompson found his groove and started to become more comfortable onstage, though the judges often praised his humility, predicting that would take him far.
“Just keep being the country boy that’s standing right there. I must say, there’s a sweet spot in your voice that when you start really, really recognizing it, you might win the whole competition,” Bryan said after Thompson sang “Blue Side of the Mountain” by the SteelDrivers. The next week, when he covered Harry Styles’s “Falling,” Bryan predicted, “You’re gonna ‘aw, shucks’ your way to the top.”
At one point, Thompson tested positive for the coronavirus and had to sing remotely from a hotel room, but viewers still liked him enough to vote him through. Even Underwood got in on Thompson’s feel-good story when she mentored the finalists in one of the last weeks of the competition and told him she could relate to his small-town upbringing.
“I do feel like this show was created for people like me and for people like Noah, who didn’t dare to dream that big but knew they wanted to do something,” the country superstar said as she started to cry. “So it’s a beautiful thing.”
By the finale, though it was a close race with HunterGirl, Thompson appeared destined for the crown. After he sang Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” Richie congratulated him on finding his stage persona. “When you walk out on that stage now, you look, you act, you sound like yourself. And that is called an artist, my friend,” Richie told him. “You have now graduated to that wonderful stage of your life. Enjoy it.”
Perry chimed in with some prescient words. “I think you just swooped in and grabbed every heart in America by singing that song,” she said. “You’re just a good guy from Kentucky that might win ‘American Idol.’ ”