From that initial moment when Scotty McCreery stepped in front of the "American Idol" judges and bellowed "lock the doors and turn the lights down low" in his deep-beyond-his-years register, the fresh-faced country crooner captured everyone's attention and he never let it go.
McCreery, a 17-year-old high school student from Garner, N.C., won the "American Idol" title on Wednesday night after performing nearly flawlessly throughout the 10th season of the Fox talent competition.
And he did it with an unwavering commitment to country music - even when challenged with other genres. During the show's installment of Elton John tunes, McCreery uncovered John's "Country Comfort" and made it his own.
"You have amazing instincts about performing and about what's right for you," judge Jennifer Lopez told him afterward.
Armed with an unflappable aw-shucks attitude and genuinely goofy grin, McCreery managed to outlast an array of more seasoned and outgoing finalists, such as eccentric 20-year-old jazz lover Casey Abrams of Idyllwild, Calif., wailing 22-year-old rocker James Durbin of Santa Cruz, Calif., and sultry 20-year-old vocalist Haley Reinhart of Wheeling, Ill.
In the end, McCreery's biggest adversary among the top 13 singers was the one most like him: 16-year-old fellow country darling Lauren Alaina of Rossville, Ga. Despite her vocal cord injury that needed medical treatment before their sing-off on Tuesday's finale, the judges proclaimed that Alaina overpowered McCreery with her soaring vocal spectrum.
The viewers, who cast more than 122 million votes, didn't agree. McCreery built a stronger connection with the audience than Alaina, who sometimes wilted under the lights - and pressure - of the "Idol" stage, while McCreery always sizzled. Sitting across from his parents in his dressing room after the finale, McCreery had one clue why viewers picked him.
"It's because I'm one of them," he said. "I was just a kid who was bagging groceries three months ago."
The matchup between McCreery and Alaina, who individually performed with country icon Tim McGraw and fourth season "Idol" winner Carrie Underwood on Wednesday, marked the youngest finale duel in "Idol" history. Producers lowered the minimum age requirement to 15 years old this season, which allowed Alaina the opportunity to audition last year.
McCreery's victory over Alaina was hardly a surprise to "Idol" devotees. Several online outfits predicted that McCreery would take home the top prize: the "Idol" title and a record contract. DialIdol.com, which tracks busy signals on the separate phone lines dedicated to each contestant, correctly projected him as the show's winner Wednesday morning.
The outcome punctuates the inaugural season of Lopez and Aerosmith frontman Steven Tyler as judges. The pair, who joined veteran Randy Jackson on the panel, brought a gentler attitude to the show after the departure of biting judge Simon Cowell, who left at the end of last season to transplant his British talent contest "The X Factor" to the U.S.
The new panel initially energized the 10th season of "Idol," which still reigns as No. 1 but has steadily dipped in weekly viewership and seen its audience age. Yet many "Idol" fans complained that the judges' final-round critiques quickly became repetitive. Ultimately, though, a pop diva, loudmouth rocker and old-school producer found America's next country star.
"I left Garner as Scotty, and I'm still Scotty as the `American Idol' winner," McCreery said on Wednesday.
McCreery follows in the footsteps of four previous "Idol" champions who are also charming, humble young men. And his win could be attributed to the biggest bloc of "Idol" voters, namely the howlers looking for their next heartthrob. But McCreery's unmatched commitment to country music likely garnered votes that weren't based solely on his looks.
Before he records his debut album, McCreery will tour with the top 11 finalists. He said he wants his album to be filled with "good songs. It's all about the songs from here on out. If you don't have hit songs, you don't have a career."
But there's something McCreery will have to attend to first: He said he needs just one more class to graduate from high school.
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© 2011 The Associated Press.