Ten years ago, “American Idol” was at its peak – and so was North Carolina’s presence on the show.
In and out of the winner’s circle, The Old North State has always been an “Idol” player, going back to Clay Aiken, runner-up in Season 2, and Season 3 winner Fantasia Barrino in 2004. In fact, five of the all-time top-selling 11 “American Idol” contestants are from North Carolina.
Another half-dozen performers from the state have made the top 24, including Raleigh native Jordan Sasser this year.
But 2006, when “American Idol” was attracting well over 30 million viewers a week (more than double 2016’s weekly viewership), was the year North Carolina owned the franchise, even though that year’s winner came from elsewhere.
In that, you could say that North Carolina lost the battle but won the war. Officially, Alabama native Taylor Hicks was that year’s “American Idol” winner. Judging by post-“Idol” careers, however, McLeansville’s Chris Daughtry was 2006’s real winner. Despite finishing fourth that year, Daughtry has outsold Hicks by more than a 10-to-1 margin (9 million to 818,000 total album sales).
The remarkable part is that Daughtry was only one of three North Carolinians in that year’s final eight, alongside Albemarle’s Kellie Pickler and Rockingham’s Bucky Covington.
A decade on down the road, they’re all still at it.
Back in February, Daughtry and Kellie Pickler returned to “American Idol” in the role of mentors, singing with this year’s contestants. But that actually wasn’t Daughtry’s most notable television appearance this year. On Palm Sunday, March 20, he appeared in the Fox network’s contemporary rock-musical version of “The Passion.”
Daughtry played Judas, with a few show-stopping moments: singing Imagine Dragons’ “Demons” as a duet with Jencarlos Canela’s Jesus (!), and Evanescence’s “Bring Me to Life.” Still, he was initially more excited about going back to “Idol” than singing in a musical.
“Being on ‘Idol’ again was cool, man,” said Daughtry, 36. “I loved talking to this year’s up-and-comers, and I remember what being in that position was like. I had a blast. But I was a little hesitant at first about ‘The Passion.’ I want to separate music from acting, which is something I wanted to do way before music. So I wanted to develop as an actor outside music, and I wasn’t sure about something so polarizing right out of the gate. But it sounded intriguing.”
Among Daughtry’s other accomplishments, he stands as “Idol’s” top-selling non-winner in the show’s history with more than 9 million copies sold of his four albums. That ranks third behind Carrie Underwood (fourth season winner) and Kelly Clarkson (first season winner), and just ahead of Clay Aiken at No. 4.
Daughtry has had enough hits to warrant a greatest-hits album, “It’s Not Over … The Hits So Far,” which was released in February. But at present, he’s less focused on music than acting, having moved to Los Angeles last year to pursue projects.
Back in North Carolina, meanwhile, Daughtry had one loose end get tied up last fall. Before his “American Idol” run, Daughtry was in a band called Absent Element. In 2012, his former bandmates sued Daughtry, alleging he had re-recorded some of his old group’s songs on his solo albums.
After years of legal wrangling, the case was settled shortly before it was to go to trial in September – confidentially, of course.
“I can’t tell you anything about the terms other than that it was resolved to the parties’ mutual satisfaction,” said plaintiffs attorney Coe W. Ramsey.
“That’s kind of a sore subject I’d prefer not to talk about,” Daughtry said.
If North Carolina had a Game Show Hall of Fame, the first inductee would be Pickler, who turns 30 in June. Following her sixth-place finish on the 2006 “American Idol,” she won ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars in 2013.
Pickler has also sold more than 2 million albums (11th best all-time among “Idol” contestants), forging a solid multi-media career. Her latest venture is “I Love Kellie Pickler,” a reality show with husband Kyle Jacobs, which was just renewed for a second season on Country Music Television.
That has Pickler counting blessings on a daily basis. She came from a broken home with few obvious prospects before her “American Idol” breakthrough.
“‘American Idol’ obviously helped my dream become a reality, both professionally and personally,” she said. “It got me away from a toxic environment and enabled me to be on my own and support myself. For people on the show, you have to strike while the iron’s hot, work and work and work and really decide if it’s something you have to have. I was very, very blessed to be on that particular season.”
A little more than four months after Pickler was voted off “Idol” in April 2006, she was on the charts with her first single, “Red High Heels,” which made the country Top 20. She’s shown decent staying power since then with 10 charting country singles, delivered with a down-home aw-shucks demeanor that owes a lot to her idol and role model, Dolly Parton.
“She represents strength in overcoming obstacles,” Pickler said of Parton. “We all have speed bumps and obstacles, and you just have to get over them, move on up and keep truckin’. She’s also one of the smartest women in the industry. She created an empire and taught people a lot about doing what you feel. Sing your song, even if it’s just for yourself.”
Covington got off to a fast start with his first post-“Idol” album, 2007’s “Bucky Covington,” which debuted at No. 1 on the country charts and sold more than 400,000 copies while yielding three Top 20 singles. But a follow-up hit has been slow in coming. It didn’t help that his label (Lyric Street Records) was shut down by parent company Disney in 2010.
Nevertheless, Covington is still making music and playing shows, sometimes with his twin brother, Rocky, on drums. (When not playing music, Rocky also operates Covington Collision Center outside Nashville, Tenn.) They’ll be back in the old hometown to play the square in Rockingham on April 16.
As for “American Idol,” Covington has nothing but fond memories.
“I’d just been playing bars and didn’t know anything about the business before that,” said Covington, now 38. “But what ‘Idol’ can do is put a face and a name and a sound together into an image within months. That can take years with labels, if it ever even happens. But I’m still in music full-time and thankful that ‘Idol’ put together such a great image that I can still go out and play live shows.”
Covington has kept up with his 2006 “Idol” classmates, too. His 2012 video with Shooter Jennings for “Drinking Side of Country” was a “Dukes of Hazzard” takeoff – with Kellie Pickler in the role of Daisy Duke.
North Carolina’s ‘Idol’ winners
Fantasia (2004, High Point): Now 31, Fantasia Barrino has not had an easy time in the spotlight, including an admission of functional illiteracy in her 2005 memoir “Life Is Not a Fairy Tale” and a 2010 suicide attempt that she later said was an attempt to get “away from the noise.” But through it all, her music career has stayed healthy. Fantasia’s four albums have cumulatively sold more than 3.5 million copies, good for fifth all-time among “American Idol” alumni. Her most recent album, 2013’s “Side Effects of You,” debuted at No. 2 on the Billboard charts.
Scotty McCreery (2011, Garner): At the ripe old age of 22, McCreery has his first book on the way, “Go Big or Go Home: The Journey Toward the Dream,” which will be published next month. It is not, however, an autobiography.
“I’m still pretty young for that,” he said. “It’s the perspective of a 22-year-old who was thrust into the spotlight as a teenager. I write songs that are three minutes long, I don’t know how great it would be for me to try and write 250 pages. So it was mostly me and Travis (Thrasher), the author, sitting and talking.”
Otherwise, he’s trying to get his recording career restarted after parting ways with Universal Music in February.
“I feel like my next record will be my best yet, because there’s been a real evolution the last five years,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to gain that cred so as not to be perceived as ‘that silly TV star.’ We’ve had plenty of meetings about what comes next, and I’m excited about the future. And I had three No. 1 albums, two Top 10 singles and three platinum singles, so I’ve got nothing but love for Universal and what they did for me. It was more a business thing than anything creative or musical. It’s all good on my end.”
Caleb Johnson (2014, Asheville): Johnson’s style of soulful rock always seemed out of place on “Idol,” which made him a surprise winner in Season 13. But that didn’t translate to success, at least not initially. After his “Idol”-sponsored album “Testify” sold only 26,000 copies, according to Nielsen Soundscan, Johnson parted ways with his label. In February came an announcement that he was crowdfunding his next recording project through Pledge Music.
N.C. Top 10 finalists
Majesty Rose (2014, Goldsboro): Rose returned to her hometown and her band after “Idol,” and she has a mini-album coming out this year. While grateful for the platform the show provided, she is also amused at the image it created.
“We always thought it was funny how they’d make a story around us,” Rose says. “It was all true, nothing false. But they took a few facts and some things I said, and after that I was nothing but preschool teacher flower girl. I do love flowers and children, but that was my total identity. Now I’ll meet people and they’ll ask, ‘Where are your flowers?’ ‘Don’t have any, sorry!’ I’ve made some drastic changes. The shows are really dark now.”
Anoop Desai (2009, Cary): Desai does not seem to have been able to parlay his seventh-place finish in the eighth season of “Idol” into a full-time music career. He has released a number of records independently, but none have made the charts.
Clay Aiken (2003, Raleigh): The Season 2 runner-up has had a quirky career since “Idol,” including a successful run as a recording artist (total sales of more than 5 million albums, fourth all-time among “Idol” alumni) and a Broadway debut in Monty Python’s “Spamalot.” After his 2014 run for Congress, which was documented in the 2015 series “The Runner-Up,” Aiken has lately appeared on CNN as a political commentator.
The “American Idol” finale airs at 8 p.m. Thursday on Fox.