‘American Idol’ sweeps into Athens for auditions

Season 14 runner up Clark Beckham hung out all day after driving six hours from Nashville to give auditioners a morale lift in Athens Sunday at the "American Idol" bus tour auditions. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Season 14 runner up Clark Beckham hung out all day after driving six hours from Nashville to give auditioners a morale lift in Athens Sunday at the “American Idol” bus tour auditions. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

By RODNEY HO/ rho@ajc.com, originally, filed Monday June 29, 2015

I will update this more later, including video and more photos. I have some other stuff I have to do but I wanted to get the basics out here:

For the sixth and final time, I got to cover an “American Idol” opening audition and it was refreshing how casual everything felt. Security was light. The auditions were held outdoors in front of the Classic Center. It helped that this was a bus tour stop, not one of the “big city” stops where auditions are typically held inside an arena. In those cases, I could never get close enough to the action there to hear these first auditions.

For the very first time, I had full access. I was able to stand just a few feet from the initial auditioners as they sang. I was able to judge vicariously along with the two producers who were actually judging. I was able to guess whether singers would make it through or not (and much to my delight, I was more often right than wrong.) I was able to interview contestants who made the cut moments after they made it through.

I spent three hours in Athens and would have stuck around longer but I had friends coming over later that day to my house.

There were people who sang so softly, I couldn’t hear them 10 feet away. There were others who just looked nervous so even if they sounded good, didn’t inspire confidence. Most people I heard were okay but lacked personality or any real star power. Or they hit a few bad notes, which in this situation is a major no no. Some felt over rehearsed or overly theatrical.

Ultimately, it was easy to see why the producers could cut more than 90 percent of the auditioners without much pain or agony.  I heard a lot of covers of Ed Sheeran, Alicia Keys and John Legend. I didn’t see a single person who was blatantly doing this as a grand joke or brought silly props (because even in the show’s early heyday, those people were actually rare.)

The producers brought people up, four at a time. They’d step forward and sing one or two songs. Then they’d step back. After a few moments of consideration (the producers in this case were each on their own), they’d call those they were going reject forward, thank them for their efforts and send them on their way. A few times, they’d clear someone, bring them up and hand them a bracelet and paperwork. When that happened, the crowd behind them would applaud.

Remember "Big Ron" Wilson from last season? The Quincy, FL resident said he was buoyed by positive social media feedback despite his kerfuffle last year with music director Rickey Minor that led to his departure in Hollywood. So he decided to come back and try again. He had easily the biggest voice I heard, bringing everyone to attention with "I Believe I Can Fly" by R. Kelly with his own modified lyrics. Above, he's awaiting his fate. Naturally, he made the first cut. I would be surprised if we didn't see him again in January, 2016. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Remember “Big Ron” Wilson from last season? The Quincy, FL resident said he was buoyed by positive social media feedback despite his kerfuffle last year with music director Rickey Minor that led to his departure in Hollywood. So he decided to come back and try again. He had easily the biggest voice I heard, bringing everyone to attention with “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly with his own modified lyrics. Above, he’s awaiting his fate. Naturally, he made the first cut. I would be surprised if we didn’t see him again in January, 2016. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Here’s the story that will run on myajc.com and the print edition Tuesday:

“American Idol” has been around so long, Alpharetta student Cullen Bohlinger was a toddler when Kelly Clarkson took home the season one crown in 2002.

On Sunday morning in Athens, the now 15-year-old Milton resident stood before “Idol” producer Jonathon Ridgard and sang an old-school folk song “The Wayfaring Stranger” followed by a Doors classic “People are Strange.” Ridgard was on the fence and asked him to do something more modern.

Bohlinger chose John Mayer’s “Gravity.” Bingo! Ridgard gave him a first-round pass. “I don’t get nervous,” Bohlinger said moments later. “I just clear my head and think about the music.”

He said he’s been a lifelong fan of “Idol” but skipped the past season to focus on learning his craft in his bedroom. His mom, Kay, was proud and amazed by his progress: “I only learned a year ago that he could sing!”

Cullen Bohlinger, a 15-year-old Alpharetta student, showed potential during his initial audition for "American Idol." CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Cullen Bohlinger, a 15-year-old Alpharetta student, showed potential during his initial audition for “American Idol.” CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

“Idol” producers love stories like that but realistically, the chances of Bohlinger or any of the hundreds who showed up for the “Idol” bus tour auditions Sunday becoming the next Carrie Underwood or Adam Lambert are slim.

Still, even as “Idol” has shrunken into relative obsolescence in the pop culture world and is facing its 15th and final season in 2016, auditioners said any TV exposure in this day and age is a good thing.

“This is a shot in the dark that could get you ahead of the game, a jumpstart,” said Cocoa Beach, Fla., resident Cordell Winter, who brought his dog Judah for good luck.

The Fox show used to solely focus its auditions on a handful of major cities in big arenas with Dunwoody native and host Ryan Seacrest cheerleading thousands. Over 15 seasons, “Idol” has stopped in metro Atlanta for auditions six times, most recently season 13 at the Arena at Gwinnett.

But starting in 2012, producers added a bus tour, hitting mostly smaller cities in an attempt to expand the pool of potential contestants.

On Sunday, the “Idol”-embossed bus pulled into the relatively small town of Athens. But the city’s musical legacy is outsized, generating legends such as R.E.M. and the B-52s as well as acts ranging from Matthew Sweet to Drive-By Truckers to Widespread Panic.

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The 90-plus weather of the past two weeks broke over the weekend, making for a pleasant Sunday morning for the estimated 1,500 waiting in line, many holding guitars. [That 1,500 estimate was from an “Idol” spokeswoman. I think the number was far smaller and given that they had only two producers and took 10 hours to get through the line, my guess is about 600 people tried out in total.] Season 14 runner-up Clark Beckham hit a stage outside the bus to encourage the newest crew and sang a snippet of “Georgia on My Mind.”

The tryouts were held outside the entrance of the Classic Center, with minimal security, as two stern-looking producers sat under small canopies. Producer Ridgard wore sunglasses, making it difficult for those auditioning to read his opinion while they sang. About three-quarters of those trying out were female, which producers said is typical.

“Idol” producer Beau Dozier has heard thousands of auditioners over five years, including season 11 winner and Georgia native Phillip Phillips.

“You can tell by the way they engage you when they’re performing,” Dozier said. “Some people will be looking up to the sky. Some people will be twiddling with their hands. Others know what they’re doing. They know to perform and give me that emotion to make me believe they wrote that song.”

The bar to just get past the first round is high. Over a sample three hours and more than 150 people, fewer than 10 made the initial cut.

And their journey is far from over.

Ebony Strong, 16, of Atlanta, didn't make the cut after her "Syrup & Honey" by Duffy didn't impress the producer Beau Dozier enough to give her a yes. (She wasn't bad but didn't blow away the joint.) She wasn't upset and called it a "good experience." Her family held up letters signifying her name while she auditioned. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Ebony Strong, 16, of Atlanta, didn’t make the cut after her “Syrup & Honey” by Duffy didn’t impress the producer Beau Dozier enough to give her a yes. (She wasn’t bad but didn’t blow away the joint.) She wasn’t upset and called it a “good experience.” Her family held up letters signifying her name while she auditioned. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Oxaina Live Bery of Albany GA made the first-round cut after singing "Riptide" by Vance Joy. She made it to Hollywood last year but got cut during the group rounds. She said she got no airtime last time around. Hopefully, that will change season 15 for her sake. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

Oxaina Live Berry of Albany GA made the first-round cut after singing “Riptide” by Vance Joy. She made it to Hollywood last year but got cut during the group rounds. She said she got no airtime last time around. Hopefully, that will change season 15 for her sake.  The producer she performed for is named Jonathan Ridgard, who is doing this for the first time but has worked on “America’s Got Talent” and “Britain’s Got Talent.” CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

I didn't catch this guy's name but I just liked the photo. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

I didn’t catch this guy’s name but I just liked the photo. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

"Idol" had contestants wait in groups of four in the sun. It was hot but not painfully so. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

“Idol” had contestants wait in groups of four in the sun. It was hot but not painfully so. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

I never got around to asking this guy anything but kudos for trying! CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

I never got around to asking this guy anything but kudos for trying! CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

One auditioner was smart enough to bring an umbrella to stay cooler. She still didn't make the cut. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

One auditioner was smart enough to bring an umbrella to stay cooler. She still didn’t make the cut. CREDIT: Rodney Ho/rho@ajc.com

 

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