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'American Idol' recap: Takin' the auditions to Texas

February 3, 2011 |  9:19 am

JudgingTX_101008_0435 On Wednesday night, “American Idol” trekked out to Austin, Texas, where it found that the “everything’s bigger in Texas” slogan may or may not apply to talent, but judging from the batch of contestants we saw in a mercifully hourlong show, does seem to apply to heart.

There were no seriously sad stories in the episode (no homeless families or catastrophically injured fiancés), but there were moments of triumph. And there was lots and lots of love, of varying sorts: young romance, suddenly discovered long-lost siblings, boys who are devoted to their mamas. In fact, our first glimpse of Ryan Seacrest in the episode finds him on the phone with his father.

"OK, Dad, I love you. Bye," our peripatetic host says, getting out of the car. "I’m in Austin for 'Idol.' " His parents are worried about him, he explains to us, unsure of his whereabouts.

Then we see Jennifer Lopez’s husband, Marc Anthony, coming in to give her a kiss.

"It’s a family affair," Tyler sings.

Indeed it is, as the “Idol” producers confusingly reminded us with that apology for Steven Tyler’s “outrageous behavior" at the top of the show. (I contacted Fox in hopes of getting an explanation, but they’re offering no comment at this time.)

The family theme provided a through line.

Corey Levoy, the first contestant of the day, was encouraged to audition by his older sister, whom he didn’t meet until they were both teenagers, due to parental differences, even though they lived only 15 minutes apart. Now, he says, “we’re definitely best friends.” Their connection was apparent when Corey, who has a remarkably high speaking voice, about which he says he has always been teased, sang a solid rendition of Bonnie Raitt’s “I Can’t Make You Love Me,” and his sister, Brooks, who had been invited to join the judging table, gave Steven Tyler a look like, See? Isn’t my brother great? She’s clearly his biggest fan, saying, “I think he was amazing. … He gives me chill bumps.” When asked if her brother should go to Hollywood, she replied, “Heck, yeah,” which was echoed by the three judges. Corey made it through, with help from his loving sister.

Hollie Cavanagh was almost felled by nerves, switching keys “about five times,” Randy said, when she attempted Etta James’ “At Last,” but then nice judge Jennifer Lopez kindly gave her another shot, asking her if she could pull herself together so the judges could hear something else, and she nailed her second song, “The Climb,” as her parents huddled nervously with Ryan in the hall. The judges loved it. She made it through.

Soon after came John Wayne Schulz, a handsome young cowboy who was auditioning to make his mama, who’d battled breast cancer and described her son as “the most genuine, kindest person you’d ever meet,” proud. Schulz’s mama also explained that the name John Wayne came from her husband, who wanted a son who was “rough and tough,” and when Ryan notes that John Wayne’s father would be pretty disappointed if he were his son, the father quips (or possibly merely observes), “You wouldn’t be the way you are now.” Schulz makes it through with a heartfelt version of Brooks & Dunn’s “Believe” –- reports that he released an album, “Ropin’ Dreams,” at age 14, but put his singing career on hold when he went off on a Mormon mission –- yet his mama has a bit of the skeptic in her. On her way out after Schulz is told he’s headed to Hollywood, she says, “Where’s your ticket? You don’t have a ticket!” Moms!

Turns out it’s a good thing Ryan wasn’t raised by John Wayne’s father, at least as far as contestant Courtney Penry is concerned. Penry seems highly amused with herself as she calls Ryan “the sexiest man alive” and tells the camera she has long dreamed of the day she would meet him. “I will marry him someday,” she declares. And she doesn’t seem unhinged but rather like a person on a lark. Surely she’s a joke contestant, right? When she does her impression of a chicken, we feel 100% certain that she is. Then she surprises us and the judges by actually singing pretty well. One of the judges says she’s got “star quality” (didn’t they say something like that about the woman in New Jersey who had stars on her breasts?) and they put her through to Hollywood. Um … OK.

We get a three-fer of Hollywood-bound contestants: Shauntel Campos, Alex Carr, Caleb Johnson, punctuated by Steven Tyler drooling at a comely young contestant: “Where is your pitchfork, you little devil?” (So much for that apology.)

Our next contestants, Jacqueline Dunford and Nick Fink, are young lovers who declare that they’re determined to be “American Idol’s’ first power couple,” and proceed to annoy us with their public displays of affection (nose nuzzles, sloppy kisses, skipping through the park, mini-golf). We figure they’re going to fall flat on their faces -– isn’t that what the “Idol” producers are prepping us for? -– but then, no, they can both sing. “It’s like, yo, what is this gonna be? And it was good,” Randy marvels. “Yes, and yes,” the judges say. And Jacqueline and Nick (who cries big dramatic tears following his victory) are off to honeymoon (or whatever) in Hollywood.

Janelle Arthur, from Tennessee, tells us her family, whom we see gathered around the table at home, has long wanted her to audition for “Idol.” Now she finally feels ready. During her audition, her family, waiting anxiously in the hall, tells Ryan she’s already a star in their eyes. After singing Duffy’s “Syrup and Honey” and then something more "upbeat," she’s a star in the judges’ eyes too. She makes it through to Hollywood.

The same cannot be said for the giant armadillo who auditions. The armadillo says she wishes the judges “had seen the potential that I see in myself.” Poor armadillo.

Our final audition of the day, a Seth Rogen look-alike named Casey Abrams, has no sad backstory. But he does have an instrument called a “melodica” and a sweet naivete about the “Idol” process. He thinks it might be a bad thing that he’s the last audition of the day. Won’t the judges be tired? Ryan holds back a chuckle.

Casey blows it out with Ray Charles’ "I Don't Need No Doctor." “That was sick good,” declares Tyler.

And it’s on to Los Angeles.

Did you think the talent was big in Texas? Did you have a favorite? Weigh in.

-- Amy Reiter

Photo: John Wayne Schulz, 22, of Karnes City, Texas, performs in front of the "American Idol" judges. Credit: Michael Becker / Fox