American Idol went back on the air on Sunday to offer another “chance to own a piece of the American dream,” complete with Norman Rockwellian photos of earnest small-town artists standing anxiously in sunlit cornfields. After nearly 20 years, it’s still the msot feel-good show on network TV. But one contestant’s timely and heartbreaking tale turned Sunday’s premiere momentarily dark. Twenty-five-year-old Nebraska singer-songwriter Nick Townsend moved all three judges — even the usually jocular Luke Bryan — to tears with his story of how suicide affected his family.
Nick tragically said that his beloved older brother took his life in January 2018 while serving in the military. (“It’s actually the first time I’ve talked about this,” Nick said to Idol producers Sunday.) Understandably devastated, Nick tried to get away from the pain by accepting a job in Japan — but then, while he was in Japan, his little brother Matthew also died of suicide. Nick is still burdened with guilt, telling Idol producers that going to Japan is his life’s biggest regret. “It made me feel selfish, because I left my little brother … all I can think about is he needed me and I left him,” he sobbed. But Nick has marched on. “There have definitely been times that I’ve just wanted to give up, but I know my brothers would want me to keep pursuing my dream and be really proud that I’m here.”
Luke stayed calm during Nick’s plaintive cover of James Bay’s “Let It Go” — which displayed what judge Lionel Richie called a “natural cry” vocal quality. But it was obvious that Luke had been moved by this story, which had some parallels to his own. “I haven’t brought this up on this show because I haven’t had to, but I’ve lost both my siblings,” he told Nick. When Luke was 19, his older brother Chris died in a car crash just days before Luke had planned to Nashville to pursue his own musical career, and Luke put his career on pause — something Nick had seriously considered — for years as a result. “I just applaud you for keeping a positive attitude and continuing to fight, and for trying to be a light for your parents too,” Luke told Nick.
When Nick was given his golden ticket and his sister and parents rushed into the audition room to congratulate him, that’s when Luke really seemed on the verge of crying. After a year of grieving, the Townsends finally had reason to celebrate. “It’s all right to cry good tears,” Luke told them, joining in the group hug. Once the Townsends left, Luke became contemplative, sitting by himself at the far end of the judging table, his eyes misting over, as the screen faded to a display of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255. It was an intense, but classic, American Idol moment.