“American Idol” lures wannabe stars into its bright, overproduced world with promises of fame and fortune, then milks the often impossibly young artists for their heart-tugging stories, building up the competitive hype to a crescendo of anticipation over which one will come out on top.
But then what? After a few months of intense scrutiny, what happens to these budding talents when the spotlight moves on to another cohort of hopefuls?
Three acts lighting up the Tin Pan’s listening room over the next six weeks showcase the range of possibilities for a performer’s post-"Idol" life.
Ruben Studdard won season two of “Idol” and, while he’s percolated below the superstardom level of alums like Carrie Underwood, he remains a solid draw on tour. Studdard’s latest album has the “velvet teddy bear” covering Luther Vandross songs and his two Richmond shows this weekend sold out weeks ago. (Studdard’s management team did not respond to emails for this article.)
Another singer leveraging her ability to channel a familiar star is season 15 finalist Tristan McIntosh (she ultimately finished sixth). She headlines the Linda Ronstadt Experience (LRE) that will roll into the Tin Pan on Oct. 20.
McIntosh, who appeared on “Idol” when she was 15, had barely finished high school when her mom saw a Craigslist ad looking for a “Linda Ronstadt-style” singer. While not a hardcore fan, “I knew a couple of her songs and I love ‘70s-era music,” she says on a call from Massachusetts during a break from touring. In addition to having a huge voice, McIntosh projects both the emotional depth and breezy beauty needed to simulate Ronstadt’s style and delivery.
She signed on with LRE after stipulating that her regular guitar player, Bronson Bush, could be included. “We had our first rehearsal [in 2018] and, four days later, we shot our first promo video for YouTube that has more than 5 million views now,” McIntosh says.
McIntosh doesn’t mind putting work as a solo artist on the back burner. “I have always loved this gig and I have no reason not to do it,” she says. “It’s very fulfilling.”
She cites the opportunity to improve her skills as a major benefit: “I’ve learned so much about my own voice singing [Ronstadt’s] music. You can’t fake it with this project. Her songs demand so many different techniques and my range has really improved.”
While McIntosh’s solo career is idling for now, another “Idol '' stand-out, Crystal Bowersox, is expanding both the quantity and variety of her solo work. A fan favorite who came in second during season nine, Bowersox will arrive in Richmond on Oct. 25, just five days after McIntosh.
Bowersox is supporting a new record, “HitchHiker,” that came out in January. Lilting country balladry dominates the album, showcasing her honeysuckle voice that has drawn comparisons to Janis Joplin and Melissa Etheridge. An album standout is the searing single, “The Storm,” a jagged, blues rock rave-up that delivers a fierce rebuke to sexual abusers.
Bowersox directed and edited the video for “The Storm,” representing just one of a growing list of artistic endeavors. She wrote a stage piece, “Trauma Queen,” that she calls “not a Broadway musical as much as a biographical rock concert” and she has a children’s book in the works. “I work on the things that I want to work on,” she says from her home in Nashville. “It’s all passion stuff; I don’t expect my art to pay my bills.”
Fans’ devotion to Bowersox is spurred by her effective use of Patreon and social media. “I love doing it,” she says. “Not only is it a great way to stay connected to fans, I get to express myself in different ways.”
Both McIntosh and Bowersox express gratitude for their time on “Idol,” though they have resolutely moved on from it. “Going through the process, all of the glitz and glam made it clear I wasn’t suited for Hollywood,” Bowersox says. As someone who prefers to tour solo, sleeping in campgrounds and showering at truck stops, she laughs, “there aren’t a lot of people that are OK touring the way I do.”
“Still, the exposure launched my career and, 13 years later, I’m extremely grateful for the stability it brought to my life,” says Bowersox.
McIntosh echoes that sentiment. “It was great exposure,” says McIntosh. “I wish it didn’t have to be this way but [the show] kind of gives you the stamp of approval as an artist in the industry.”
Ruben Studdard sings Luther Vandross for two shows at the Tin Pan this Sunday, Sept. 11, the first from 2 to 4 p.m. and the second from 7 to 9 p.m. Tickets for all the shows at the Tin Pan are available at their website.