Back with the live audience, Billy Ray introduces the judges. There is Jewel. I have to say that I secretly thrill that Jewel's career is in the crapper enough that she is on this show. There is John Rich, of the duo Big and Rich, of "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" fame. He... kind of scares me. He has a real "To Catch a Predator" glint in his eye. Then there's Jeffrey Steele, songwriter extraordinaire. I like him most of all already, probably because I know nothing about him.
After a commercial break, Billy Ray explains that judgment day is here for the top 50. Billy Ray is an alarming Oompa Loompa orange as he welcomes them and gives them over to the judges. A guy named Charley Jenkins, who has tried out before, gets one minute before the panel. He sings, "Drift Away," and eventually John Rich tells him to sing another song. The judges are not impressed with several of the initial competitors, so they come out to the waiting room and give them a little pep talk. After that, things seem to get better, and the third version of "Drift Away" is the charm. I have to say it's great to see so many people playing instruments, and the occasional flash of mandolin. The judges deliberate, and finally have made their decisions. They deliver the news. There is happiness, and there are tears. A guy with punk hair makes it, as does the Navy guy with the funky teeth! All is right with the world.
The finalists emerge on stage, and then suddenly we're in a group medley of "Life Is a Highway." Oh, this is going to be brutal. We have Charley Jenkins, 29 from Roosevelt, Utah; Naval tooth guy Tommy Stanley, 22, from U.S.S. Kitty Hawk, who can really sing his effing ass off; Gabe Garcia, 28, from Lytle, Texas; the singularly named and coffee and cream hued "Coffey," 28, from the improbably named Bangs, Texas; Justin Gaston, 19, of Pineville, Louisiana, though his coif would indicate it's he who should call Bangs, Texas home; red-headed Alyson Gilbert, 28, from Jackson, Tennessee; the trio Third Town -- Toni, 35, Toni, 29, and Jeff, 37 from Las Vegas, Nevada -- one more Tone/Tony and they could do a convincing remake of "Feels Good"; big, beautiful and sassy Melissa Lawson, 32, from Arlington, Texas; duo Laura & Sophie, 18 and 16, respectively, from Eastlake, Ohio; all-female trio Pearl Heart - Angela, 21, Amy, 21, and Courtney, 17, from Florissant, Missouri; Lolita-esque Ashlee Hewitt, 20, from Lancaster, Minnesota; and slightly goth Shawn Mayer, 21, from May City, Iowa. Each of the final twelve will sing for us tonight, and someone will get eliminated.