This week’s Nashville Star begins with Billy Ray Cyrus’ non-Miley daughter Noah introducing her dad. It’s family night, which means we’ll be seeing the final nine contestants get surprise visits from family members during their rehearsals. It also means that those family members will are in attendance to witness this week’s performances, which will each be two songs long — or, more accurately, 1.5 songs, since the second songs are nothing more than 30-second snippets.
First up is Ashlee Hewitt, whose entire 19-member family arrives to lend support. If the crowd seems a little louder for Ashlee this week, you’ll know why. She’s singing “Don’t Stop Believin'” by Journey, and because she’s not Steve Perry, she has a little trouble with a couple of the big notes. We can hardly fault her for that. Otherwise, it was a solid way to start the show. We liked Ashlee’s switch from piano to guitar but, like the judges told her, she needs to make moves like that seem more natural. That aside, despite our initial indifference to her, she’s quickly becoming one of our favorite contestants. She finishes with a brief version of the Sammi Smith song “Help Me Make It Through the Night.” Our rating: 4 stars
Coffey is safe this week, as well. After last week’s rendition of “Umbrella,” we weren’t sure he would be. This week he’s doing the Hank Williams classic “Hey Good Lookin'” — after a visit from his daughter, Savannah. It’s not bad, but it’s not great, either. We’re starting to wonder if the audition we loved so much was an aberration. That’s the least of Coffey’s worries right now, though, as John Rich is calling him out for not being country enough. John suggests that Coffey go try out for American Idol instead. Coffey defends his honor, saying something about a rabbit farm, but is clearly shaken while performing his second song, John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Our rating: 3 stars
Surprisingly, after last week’s “Maniac” debacle, Tommy Stanley is not in the Bottom 2 this week. Speaking of the number two, Tommy gets two visits this week — one from his parents and one from three crew members of the USS Kittyhawk. Onstage, he’s not quite so manic this week, as he delivers a strong, somewhat subdued rendition of Rascal Flatts “Bless the Broken Road.” Unfortunately, it’s not really a country rendition, and he makes Coffey look like Buck Owens by comparison. The judges call him on it, except for Jeffrey Steele who cites a bad note that Tommy sang. Apparently being country means singing poorly. Tommy’s second song, “Tiny Dancer” by Elton John, doesn’t help his country credibility any, but it’s not bad. Our rating: 3 stars
If this week’s theme suits any of the remaining nine finalists, it’s Pearl Heart, the only family act in the competition. They’re singing “I’ll Still Be Loving You” by Restless Heart, a song that obviously means a lot to their mentor, Jeffrey Steele. They don’t make it the defining moment that Jeffrey was hoping for, but they handle a difficult song admirably. They sound even better on LeAnn Rimes’ “One Way Ticket,” which is a little more in their wheelhouse. Four weeks in, Pearl Heart has yet to give a subpar performance, and that consistency should keep them in this competition for a long time. Our rating: 4 stars
Last week, Melissa Lawson sang the hell out of Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors.” This week, after a visit from her husband and five kids, she’s doing Martina McBride’s “This One’s For the Girls.” John Rich is concerned that Melissa will be too distracted during rehearsals to really nail the song, but she nails it anyway. She clearly is the best pure vocalist on the show — including the judges — and the audience loves her. That’s not to say that her performance is flawless, however. Her facial expressions are scary at times, and a few of her dance moves remind us of our aunt at a family wedding — or possibly even Elaine from Seinfeld. But John Rich is right when he says that if the competition were to end right now, she’d be the undisputed winner. Her second song, “Landslide” by Fleetwood Mac, does nothing to dispel that notion. Our rating: 5 stars
In a mild upset, Shawn Mayer is safe this week. We thought her performance last week of *NSYNC’s “Bye Bye Bye” would at least put her in the Bottom 2, if not send her packing. This week, she’s doing Faith Hill’s “Breathe,” which is a big song for a big voice, something Shawn doesn’t really possess. Ironically, she seems to run out of breath while singing the song, and it just doesn’t sound good at all. As we wait for the judges to lower the boom, Jewel instead praises Shawn for her “raw emotionality.” Jeffrey likes the breathless approach to “Breathe” – we should have remembered from earlier that he likes bad vocals. The biggest surprise is that John Rich, with whom we almost always agree, also thought Shawn was great tonight. She must have sounded better live that she did on TV, because we thought the performance was a mess. The judges do come around to our way of thinking, however, after Shawn sings “Forever and Ever, Amen” by Randy Travis — a performance John Rich uses to call out her inconsistency. Our rating: 2 stars
We take a quick break for Blake Shelton to perform his latest single, “Home.”
We’re almost to the Bottom 2, but first Gabe Garcia will perform “Wanted Dead or Alive.” On a show where two contestants have already been ripped for not being country enough, covering a Bon Jovi song is a bold move. But if anyone should be allowed to take a stab at a rock song, it’s Gabe, the show’s resident cowboy. It starts out a little boring, but then Gabe unleashes his inner Jon Bon Jovi. We don’t really believe that he’s seen a million faces and rocked them all, but we do know that he’s by far the best male vocalist on the show. Gabe takes less of a chance with his second song, George Strait’s “The Fireman,” which is solid just the same. Our rating: 4 stars
Alyson Gilbert finds herself in the Bottom 2 for the second time, and since she’s joined by Laura & Sophie, we have the sneaking suspicion that she’s going home. She’s singing “She’s in Love With the Boy” by Trisha Yearwood, setting up a possible scenario similar to last week, when Justin delivered one of our favorite performances of the night only to be sent home based on the previous week’s voting results. Our feelings about Alyson have been well documented, but we love this song and she could really win us over by doing it justice. The bug eyes are back, and we’re off to a shaky start. Alyson’s clearly trying too hard, putting too much effort into the vocals and losing sight of the song. We are absolutely hating this. The judges don’t care for it much, either, and we credit Alyson for taking their criticism gracefully. Our rating: 1 star
While Alyson waits to see if she gets to perform again, Laura & Sophie, whose presence in the Bottom 2 is startling given their knockout performance of “P.Y.Y” last week, take the stage to perform Katrina and the Waves’ big hit “Walking on Sunshine.” Jeffrey Steele is trying very hard to sell them as a contemporary act, but this time it works to their detriment. Despite an interesting arrangement, the song doesn’t work. The girls seem a little disinterested and even lost at times, and the pop sheen just doesn’t play to their strengths. Maybe they just cracked under the pressure of being in the Bottom 2, but this is the first time they have really seemed too young for the competition. Our rating: 2 stars
After Billy Ray Cyrus makes them wait for what seems to be an eternity, the contestants are informed that Alyson will be going home. Laura & Sophie celebrate with their second misfire of the night, an awful take on Kelly Clarkson’s “Because of You” — and we’re now officially worried about them being voted off next week. Shawn, Tommy and Coffey are the others who might be in jeopardy, while Ashlee, Pearl Heart, Melissa and Gabe can probably breathe easy. As always, let us know what you think in the comments section below.