From William Hung and Larry “Pants on the Ground” Platt’s viral auditions to Kara DioGuardi’s finale-night bikini reveal, to any number of the always-extra Katy Perry’s focus-stealing, pants-splitting antics since becoming a judge on the show’s ABC revival five years ago. However, at its core, Idol has always been about the more serious and vulnerable moments, in addition to a nationwide hunt for undiscovered raw talent.
There were two such poignant moments in Sunday’s program. While some Idol sob stories may appear contrived, these two exchanges appeared genuine. And no matter how far they get this season, these two contenders will leave an indelible impression.
When 21-year-old blues-rocker Trey Louis of Santa Fe, Texas, auditioned with Whiskey Myers’ “Stone,” I nearly ran out of hankies by the end of the night. Trey gave a fantastically gritty performance, and it was clear that there was anguish underneath his aw-shucks, class clown approach. “Man, you’re singing from just the perfect spot,” Luke said. That’s when Katy asked Trey what inspired him to try out for Idol, and we all found the source of his pain.
“In May 2018, a gunman walked into my school,” Trey told the judges. “I was in Art Room 1; he shot up Art Room 2, before he made his way to Art Room 1. I lost a lot of friends. Eight students were killed. Two teachers were killed. And it’s just really been negative, man. Santa Fe’s had a bad rap since 2018.”
“Our country has f***ing failed us!” Katy shouted furiously. (Trey nodded stoically and merely concurred: “Facts.”) “This is not OK! You should be singing here because you love music, not because you had to go through that [long, bleeped-out sentence here]. You didn’t have to lose eight friends! I hope that you remind people that we have to change, because you know what? I’m scared too.”
“We have tolerated this for so long. Too long. It’s become a norm,” Lionel sighed, dabbing his own watery eyes.
“And we’ve gotta change. And I hope you can just lead,” Katy told Trey.
“For myself, for my school, for you — you got it. Yes, ma’am,” Trey replied.
Trey seemed to believe that winning American Idol would boost Santa Fe residents’ morale and cast his hometown in a better light, and I believe he has a chance — he noted that Idol is the premier platform through which small-town, regular folk like himself can get a shot, and even without his sympathetic backstory, his immense talent will undoubtedly take him far. But, another 21-year-old everyman auditioned from Goshen, Ohio, appeared on Sunday, with his own plot-twist personal story and a five-hanky heartbreaker of an original song.
Jon Wayne Hatfield was raised by his loving grandparents since his drug-addicted mother was unable to care for him, and when his grandmother died three years ago, his grandfather, Ray, fell into a severe depression and did not talk for a year and a half — not even to Jon. “I got mad at myself, because I couldn’t fix it,” Jon recalled. “He wasn’t ready. … I didn’t see what he was actually going through.” When Ray finally did open up, Jon learned that his grandpa had been carrying around a secret — which Jon’s grandmother knew — for years.
When Ray met his late wife at age 16, “I told her about myself, and she said, ‘I love you, and it’s OK,’” Ray revealed. “Jon was the last person I told, because I was scared he would stop loving me.” But when Ray finally sat Jon down and told Jon he was gay, Jon’s first reaction was to say, “Hey, don’t think that’s gonna change a damn thing between me and you, because you’re my best friend, and you’re my dad.”
“It turned out then that [Jon] was there for me more than anybody,” said Ray through happy tears. “It’s a big relief to stand here and be proud and say, ‘I’m gay, and there’s nothing wrong with it.’”
Jon’s second reaction to Ray’s coming-out was to pen the country ballad “Tell Me Ray,” which he performed for the Idol judges Sunday with his weeping grandfather in the room. By the time he was finished, Lionel, who praised Jon’s “great songwriting,” was handing out one of his signature hankies. “I don’t normally do this, but Ray, you need this,” he said. “I don’t give these out except to special people. You’re a helluva inspiration, man.”