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Get to Know Season 20’s Top 3 « CmaTrends

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American Idol’s top-three contestants — Tennessee’s HunterGirl (Hunter Wolkonowski), Kentucky’s Noah Thompson and Leah Marlene of Illinois — will journey to “Idol” glory including a rest stop on the New Jersey turnpike. The top three will take on the music of Bruce Springsteen for the three-hour finale on Sunday at 8 p.m. ET/5 p.m. PT on ABC.

For the finale, the top three will also join judges Luke Bryan, Katy Perry and Lionel Richie for duets following the ceremonial airing of the “Hometown” episode.

In a video released Thursday, Perry surprised Marlene by revealing she and Marlene will join together for a song she only reserves for “inaugural occasions”: “Firework.” Kerry was touched by an old video of the then-9-year old “Idol” contestant performing the song and will be joining her for the special finale duet.

HunterGirl will pair with Bryan for “I Told You So,” and Thompson will pair with Melissa Etheridge. It’s worth noting that Etheridge famously performed alongside Springsteen on her “MTV Unplugged” for a duet of “Thunder Road” from the “Born to Run” album. It’s conceivable that during Springsteen week, this moment could be recreated with Thompson and Etheridge on the “Idol” stage.

All three singers released original songs throughout the show’s last week, which each will perform for the finale episode. Marlene will perform her self-penned “Flowers,” “Hunter Girl” will sing “Redbird” and Thompson will break out “One Day Tonight.”

“Idol” socials have been buzzing about contestant pairings. Ben Platt, who was scheduled to mentor Disney week but canceled, will return to do a solid for Lady K; country star Deana Carter will join Mike Parker in song; Earth, Wind & Fire will perform a medley of hits with Platinum ticket winner Jay Copeland; and TikTok superstar Tai Verdes will be “A-O-K” joining the top 20 on the Idol stage. Last but not least, “Idol” contestant Christian Guardino will be joined by Canadian crooner Michael Bublé.

As was previously reported, all three judges as well as Season 4 “American Idol” winner Carrie Underwood will perform. Other guests for the finale will include James Arthur, Sara Bareilles, Gabby Barrett, Flo Rida and Thomas Rhett, who will join Perry for the live version of their recent duet “Where We Started.”

But before we get to the finale and the eventual crowning of the Season 20 champion, here are the top three vying for America’s vote:

Leah Marlene

Born in Toronto and raised in Normal, Illinois, the 20-year-old first grabbed the judges’ attention with a creative audition that included a cover of One Direction’s “Steal My Girl” and an original, “Wisher to the Well,” prompting Richie to call Marlene “tremendous.”

Just two days prior to Marlene’s “Idol” audition, she released an independent album titled “Many Colors,” available on Spotify, Apple, Tidal and Apple Music. Initially grouped with Fritz Hager in the “Indie-Folk” category, Marlene lived up to the placement but then played upon her natural pop instincts with Avril Lavigne’s “Sk8ter Boi.”

The former Belmont student is the daughter of Derry Grehan, a songwriter and lead guitarist for the Canadian band Honeymoon Suite. Marlene has continued to captivate and surprise the judges with spot-on picks including Larkin Poe’s “She’s a Self Made Man,” a spirited interpretation of Blondie’s “Call Me,” Tom Odell’s “Heal” and “Happy Together” by the Turtles.

Marlene bravely performed Perry’s pick of Bob Dylan’s “Make You Feel My Love,” and channeled her inner cowgirl with “Toy Story 2’s” “When She Loved Me” for Disney Week — again earning high praise from Richie, who said, “Your career is sitting in front of you, my dear. Enjoy this ride.”.

Marlene didn’t shy away from her quirky side for her TikTok pick, choosing to do Børn’s “Electric Love,” but still captured the votes from Middle America, dedicating “Sanctuary” from the ABC show “Nashville” to her mother.

Marlene sealed the deal last week by appealing to Gen Xers by picking the Pretenders’ “I’ll Stand By You” as her Carrie Underwood song, prompting the “Idol” 4 winner to give Marlene the highest compliment: “When I was on the show, I feel like it took a little bit to find artistry, and I feel you already have artistry.”

Marlene capped things off with a reworked and dramatic interpretation of Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” to sail through to the top 3. Marlene’s Springsteen pick could be the one that gets her to the top two. Our suggestion: “I’m on Fire” or “Dancing in the Dark” could give her a chance to capitalize on fellow Canadian Shawn Mendes’ recent revival of the song in the Tommy Hilfiger ad.

HunterGirl

Born Hunter Wolkonowski, the 23-year old Winchester, Tennessee powerhouse had the judges sold from the second she walked into the audition room with a guitar and passionate interpretation of Rascal Flatts’ “Riot.”

Luke Bryan literally did a victory lap right then and there, declaring her a “new age Miranda Lambert” and his “favorite female country voice.”

It’s not just her voice that is impressive — HunterGirl’s heart is as big as her vocals. She used her musical gift to counsel soldiers suffering from PTSD by using music as therapy to turn their stories into healing songs, partnering with the organizations Freedom Sings USA and Operation Songs.

Before she was on “Idol,” HunterGirl had already released independent original music. She is also a college graduate from Middle Tennessee State University’s music business school. 

As one of the show’s first-ever Platinum ticket winners, she was afforded the opportunity to sit out the early rounds of Hollywood week, but impressed and advanced after showing off her classic rock skills, pairing with Cole Ritter for Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams.”

She continued to showcase her love of Rascal Flatts by performing “Banjo,” and impressed audiences with her original song, “Heartbreak Down,” one week later. To Bryan’s delight, HunterGirl fulfilled the Miranda Lambert prophecy with “Vice,” and stayed in that country lane with Bryan’s judge pick of Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and Sugarland’s “Baby Girl.”

“Idol” has a way of forcing singers out of their box, but it wasn’t a problem for Huntergirl as she handled “I See the Light” from “Tangled” for Disney Week and Tate McRae’s “You Broke Me First” as her TikTok song pick.

HunterGirl has wisely appealed to “Idol” nostalgia by singing Season 10 runner-up Lauren Alaina’s “Like My Mother Does” as her Mother’s Day song, sealed the deal under Carrie Underwood’s mentorship with that singer’s “Undo It,” and reminded everyone what got her to the top with Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush.”

Springsteen songs can lean country, so it would be interesting if HunterGirl looks to the “Tunnel of Love” album for “Tougher Than the Rest” this week. The song worked for Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, after all.

Noah Thompson

The Louisana, Kentucky native and 20-year old father didn’t even want to audition, but he was coaxed into it when his co-worker Arthur signed him up for the show’s virtual “Idol Across America” online auditions.

“He was not born to be working with us,” his friend said in the ultimate show of confidence to a friend who clearly lacked it, despite attempts to perform in public. To his surprise, he passed through that round to an audition in front of the judges, who saw something in Thompson as well as he performed a heartfelt rendition of Kameron Marlowe’s “Giving You Up.”

There is something sincere about Thompson, who was especially hard on himself, thinking his own performance of Rihanna’s “Stay” wasn’t good enough to go through to the next round — but go through he did.

Whether it be the bluegrass stylings of the SteelDrivers’ “Blue Side of the Mountain” or bucking the country trend with “Falling” by Harry Styles, the young singer’s vocals remained confident. His journey continued with Jason Isbell’s “Cover Me Up,” and he played it safe with Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me.”

It was Bryan that threw him a monkey wrench by assigning him John Mayer’s “Heartbreak Warfare,” triggering Perry’s post-Mayer PTSD in the funniest moment of the season, when she said: “Who’s going to pay for an extra hour of therapy?”

Disney Week gave the at-home audience a chance to see Thompson surprised by his girlfriend, Angel, and son in Disneyland — the prelude to a sweet performance of “You’ve Got a Friend in Me,” dedicated to Arthur.

Thompson’s finest hour, however, happened in quarantine after testing positive for COVID-19. From a hotel room, he performed the songs “Painted Blue” by Sundy Best and Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” dedicated to his grandmother.

“You know, when you’re sick, you’re sounding a lot better,” said Richie.

By May 15, Thompson was recovered but had to do his mentor session with Underwood via Zoom. He took on the ambitious “So Small” and Larry Fleet’s “Working Man” for his shot at advancing to the top three.

Thompson’s earnest delivery could work to his advantage for Springsteen Week. Again, we look to the “Tunnel of Love” album for the song “One Step Up,” as Kenny Chesney covered a song that lends itself to country,

The season finale of “American Idol” airs Sunday from 8-11 p.m. ET/5 PT on ABC.

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