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American Idol premiere features local musicians Ron Bultongez, Harper Grace and Krystin Harris

American Idol is back! Last night’s first episode felt like a triumphant return hosted by Ryan Seacrest with judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. It aired with its usual dose of crazy contestants, disappointed hopefuls and rising stars.
Lionel Richie, Katy Perry, Ryan Seacrest, Luke Bryan | Courtesy of American Idol’s Facebook page

American Idol is back! Last night’s first episode felt like a triumphant return hosted by Ryan Seacrest with judges Lionel Richie, Katy Perry and Luke Bryan. It aired with its usual dose of crazy contestants, disappointed hopefuls and rising stars. There was even a first kiss. However, we were excited to see two contestants in particular, Ron Bultongez and Harper Grace, both from Collin County. With 13 contestants from DFW alone, Texas is certainly packing some starpower this year.

Ron and Harper both had their time in the spotlight last night, appearing second and third respectively; they quickly became two of the most interesting contestants to watch, among Dennis Lorenzo, Noah Davis and Alyssa Raghu.

We’re very familiar with Ron, a singer/songwriter and a refugee from the Congo. He showed up with his guitar, his young son and his inspiring story–get the full story in our December 2018 issue–and auditioned with James Bay’s “Let it Go.” Anyone who’s heard Ron play ever has probably heard him do this song; it’s his go-to cover, well inside his comfort zone, so it’s unsurprising that he whipped it out for American Idol. But, considering how many other contestants performed original songs, it’s surprising that Ron didn’t show off one of his own, like “Juliet,” which was written about chasing elusive dreams and gives his voice nice depth.

Ron Bultongez Plano Texas American Idol 2018
Ron Bultongez, Plano, on American Idol 2018 |  ABC/Eric Liebowitz

Ron’s performance was preceded by a pre-filmed interview, showing Ron sitting in a park–fans of Haggard Park will be thrilled–and a montage of family pictures, ending with Ron kissing his newborn son, James. Clearly the show intended to spend some quality time with Ron. The judges voted no, delivering the season’s first real shock.

“I don’t know who you are yet,” Katy said honestly. “I know about your story … but sometimes you have to separate the story from what we’re looking for. You were really good at that imitation [of James Bay] but I don’t know who you are at all.”

“Come back with your identity,” Lionel Richie said.

Their fair, but heartbreaking critique was a somber note to cut to a commercial on.

… But this is American Idol, so it didn’t end there.

The judges almost immediately changed their minds, brought Ron back and gave him his golden ticket, his well-deserved moment of triumph and a straight shot to the top.

After the drama of Ron’s rejection and then acceptance, it was up to 16-year-old McKinney girl Harper Grace to liven things up. Harper isn’t new to the spotlight; in 2012, when she was  11, her rendition of the National Anethem at an FC Dallas soccer game made the news as the worst anthem ever. But last night, Harper was all smiles.

“But you know what, at least my name’s out there,” she jokes with Ryan Seacrest before going before the judges.

Harper Grace on American Idol 2018 | Mark Levine/ABC
Harper Grace on American Idol 2018 | Mark Levine/ABC

Harper’s childhood pictures show her at a piano at two years old, as she discusses her long-time love of music and Idol in particular. Harper is wise beyond her years and brought her childhood dream board with her. With her cheerful attitude and natural stage presence, Harper was immediately endearing before she even turned her attention to her guitar and played an original song, “Yard Sale.”

While her voice is amazing, Harper’s songwriting truly sets her apart. Country music has always depended on good storytelling and Harper has mastered that art. An upbeat breakup song about clearing an ex’s junk out of your life, “Yard Sale” is an instant hit. The chorus, “Call it heart break retail/I’m having a yard sale,” is clean and quick on the uptake, but not without the kind of flashy turns of phrase that blew even Lionel Richie’s mind. Pair a great song with Harper’s delivery, which carries just a hint of Miranda Lambert’s unapologetic wit, and it’s hard to imagine Harper won’t go the way of Carrie Underwood and sweep up the whole competition.

The judges had her sing one more song and her acoustic cover of Khalid’s “Young Dumb & Broke,” got three heartfelt “thank you’s” from Luke Bryan.

“I love the quality of your voice,” Lionel Richie continued. “I don’t even know if you know that you have the kind of voice that you have.”

Stay tuned next week for the debut of another McKinney resident, Kristyn Harris. Kristyn is definitely going to be a contestant to watch. At 23 years old, she’s a country powerhouse with a huge local following, an old school style. Also she yodels. But we’ve only seen hints of her so far; we’ll hear her audition tonight, hopefully as well as ten more local contestants including Caroline Kraddick, the daughter of DJ and philanthropist Kidd Kraddick; Brittany Holmes of Aubrey; Griffin Tucker of Carrollton; Tippy Balady, Chameka Devrajai Scott and Skylar Dayne Capriles of Dallas; Samuel James and Drake Milligan of Fort Worth; Kassy Levels of Richardson; and Juliana Madrid of Southlake.

It’s going to be a crazy year. Stay tuned!