“Seeing my dad in the music industry actually made me not want to pursue music for a long time,” 24-year-old Cay Aliese confessed Sunday on American Idol. “But since his passing, it feels like all I want to do is music. … I’m just sad, because it could have been so different. He didn’t mean to die. He was a light to other people, but he couldn’t find that for himself.”
Avid talent-show watchers probably remember Cay’s father, Nolan Neal, very well. He first came to The Voice Season 10 with a tragic backstory. A few years prior, the Nashville troubadour — who had been signed to both Hollywood Records and to Virgin Records in 2006, and briefly fronted rock band Hinder in 2014 — got in a heated phone conversation with his own father about his struggles in the music business and hung up in anger. His dad tried to call back a few times, but Nolan refused to answer, and the two never spoke again: Nolan’s father died by suicide soon after their falling out. The guilt-stricken singer-songwriter then began “downward-spiraling,” partying so hard that he damaged his voice and lost his record deal while in the middle of making his album.
Although Nolan didn’t turn any Voice chairs the first time around, when the tenacious musician returned for Season 11 a few months later, he was a four-chair success and appeared to be on track to win the entire show — before getting cut in one of the most shocking Knockouts in The Voice history. In 2020, he triumphantly returned to TV on America’s Got Talent and poured his pain into a gritty original ballad called “Lost” (the first song he wrote after getting sober, which he was at that time), and he received a standing ovation. AGT judge Sofia Vergara, whose younger brother has a much-publicized history with drugs and alcohol, even tearfully told Nolan, “I know very well the sickness of addiction. My family is completely full of this horrific sickness, and I totally understand. And to be here tonight and to hear that song, for me, it gives me a lot of hope.”
Nolan was again shockingly eliminated in the AGT Season 15 Quarterfinals, and in July 2022, he died of a drug overdose, only a few months before Cay’s American Idol audition. On Sunday, Cay told Idol judges Katy Perry, Lionel Richie, and Luke Bryan that her father “kind of kept blowing” his professional chances due to his addiction and was “in and out” of her life for much of her childhood, “but the one thing that I always connected with him was music. … That was my favorite thing, sharing music with him.”
Cay explained that trying out for Idol — the talent show she said “has her heart,” as opposed to AGT or The Voice — felt “like I’m honoring my dad and I’m closing his chapter, but starting my own.” She then shared an original dedication to her father, “City of Nashville,” which she penned about the “city of music where [they] made our memories” and would “jam out in the studio for fun, writing songs about all the things we’ve done.”
Interestingly, Katy was “on the fence” about Cay because she “didn’t think the emotion was there,” and Lionel also told Cay, “You’ve got a voice, but I gotta get it to sound like you care that you’re going to do this.” I understood their point. Unlike many hard-luck Idol singers who barely make it through their auditions without bursting into tears, Cay did have a guard up, a sort of flat affect — most likely the result of years of having to process and protect herself as a child of an unreliable parent. But I think that emotion is in there.
For instance, last year Nolan’s Facebook page posted a video of Cay singing Nolan’s original “Send Me a Butterfly” at what appeared to be his memorial service, and it was certainly an Idol-worthy performance. That same year on Instagram, Cay posted another original ballad about her late dad as well as a confession about her own urges to turn to drugs and alcohol during this difficult period of mourning. And in January 2023, she posted: “This is the first year I know I can’t call my dad. It’s the first year I’ll never have another argument with him. I know I won’t get a call from him asking about Jesus or wanting to write a song together. … I just wish things could’ve been different for my dad. I wish I could go back and change some things. But I can’t. So I’m walking this grieving process out the best way I know how. And that’s through Jesus + writing music. Dad would be so happy to know I’m making music right now.”
In that same January 2023 Instagram caption, Cay wrote, “2022 broke me” and “I don’t know what 2023 will bring,” but for now, 2023 will bring her closer to her own musical dream — because the judges eventually believed enough in her potential to hand her a Golden Ticket. “If my dad was here, he’d be happy,” Cay reflected in this bittersweet moment. “Hopefully he’s cheering me on. Doing this has given me a chance to honor my dad and walk a path that my dad didn’t get to walk.”
These were Sunday’s other successful Idol auditions:
Dany Epp, 23: “The One That Got Away”
Dany’s mother Denise has been huge Idol fan since Season 1, so she got to be a “fourth judge” for the day and sit on the panel alongside Lionel, Katy, and Luke. Dany showcased a pure, pretty tone with just a bit of rasp, and while she was really pushing herself to the very edge of her range, she had impressive control; Luke described Dany’s voice as “real and emotional” and coming “from a great spot.” Katy admitted she’d “braced” herself when she found out Dany would doing one of her own songs, but eventually liked Dany’s cover so much that she even started singing along. Amusingly, Denise was the only “judge” who offered any constructive criticism, advising Dany to work on her eye contact. “Your mom’s right!” Lionel noted. But this audition was “four for four” — four yeses, including Denise’s.
Amara Valerio, 25: “Bust Your Windows”
A few years ago, Amara was asked to perform the national anthem at her high school, but a senior class bully named Sarah yanked the microphone away from her. “You got Kanye’d!” Katy gasped, after watching a video of the awkward assembly incident. Katy then asked Amara to channel her indignation from that moment into her cover Jazmine Sullivan’s angry breakup anthem… and Amara did more than enough to make it into Idol’s Class of 2023. “Sarah, you’re finished messing with our girl,” Katy declared, assuring Amara, “You’re going to Hollywood, and ain’t no one gonna mess with you there!”
Hannah Nicolaisen, 23: “Make You Feel My Love”
When this former college volleyball player claimed she “basically started figuring out how to play music about a month or two ago,” I smelled a setup. (For what it’s worth, there are videos on Hannah’s Instagram dating back to 2018 that show her playing music.) But regardless of how long Hannah has actually been doing this seriously, after trading her volleyball dream for a musical one, the woman is clearly a natural. “You did everything right to tell that story. That’s something you can’t teach. Your unique voice is something we pray for in this business,” Lionel told her.
Reette Thorns, 20: “I Believe”
Like Cay, Reette endured an unstable childhood due to her mother’s own lifelong struggle with addiction. But she forgivingly dedicated Fantasia Barrino’s Season 3 coronation song to her mom, declaring, “I believe in you, and together we can get through anything.” To be honest, I don’t know if Reette would have gotten a Golden Ticket without her sob story — the basic talent was there, but she was very strained and shouty during this power ballad’s anthemic chorus. However, Lionel — who hugged the sobbing Reette and gave her one of his handkerchiefs when she was finished — told her, “That first note you hit was spot-on, and the rest of it was nerves. … You touched me, and that’s the whole name of this business.” Katy, who offered to be Reette’s “stage mom,” said, “We believed it. Was it perfect? No. But perfection doesn’t exist.” I suspect that Reette’s time in Hollywood will be brief, as I don’t think she’s quite ready for prime time… but at least she was able to tap into her raw emotions in a way Cay did not.
Tripp Taylor, 18: “I Believe to My Soul”
This deep-voiced, self-described old soul from South Carolina absolutely slayed his Ray Charles cover. Lionel and Tripp joked about Lionel getting a DNA test to find out if he’s Tripp’s father because of their physical resemblance — and Tripp later jokingly called him “Uncle Richie” — but really, the strongest circumstantial/anecdotal evidence that Lionel and Tripp might be blood-related was Tripp’s excellent performance. Talent is in Tripp’s DNA, for sure. “I really love your attack at the mic. … You’ve got your own kind of tone, with just the right amount of gravel and grit,” said Luke. “You’ve got it all. … You’ve got the it-factor,” raved Katy.
Colt Glover, 21: “Rock Salt and Nails”
After hearing this whiskey-voiced natural ’s rugged and effortless Flatt & Scruggs cover, Katy declared Colt “top 10” material. And while Katy has said that way more than 10 times already this season, her prophecy seemed believable this time. “You are the best country singer we have seen so far!” she hollered. “I am really happy that you’re with us,” added Luke. I do think with his sandpapery vocals, to mention his Opry-marquee-worthy name, Colt has Nashville star potential.
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