America chose the “American Idol” 2018 final three performers taking the stage on Sunday night, May 20, and Caleb Lee Hutchinson, Gabby Barrett, and Maddie Poppe would each have three chances to impress the public for the final tally. Each would perform a new song released as a single, a favorite encore performance, and a song fitting with the hometown visits by each favorite.

Lionel Richie honed all his comments around the contenders now entering “the business” and making decisions to better their careers. Katy Perry often had the sharpest critiques, but only because she “cared” in her own words.

Luke Bryan also tried to give reminders that would stick in the minds of the protégés outside of the “American Idol” experience.

The audience was filled with luminaries, including past “American Idol” finalists and mentors, including Season 14 finalist, Rayvon Owen, Big Machine recording label CEO Scott Borchetta, Caitlyn Jenner, families and friends of the final three, and legendary former Journey frontman Steve Perry-- more about him, later. Backstage, four favorites from this current season waited to perform, and butterflies and big emotions filled the air.

Singles didn’t shine

One of the things any seasoned performer knows is that every song considered a classic now was once a song that nobody knew.

The singer must do the job of performing with such conviction and passion that everyone hearing the new song must walk away feeling that they must have it. Clearly, the final three in this competition had not had enough practice to “own” the songs intended to become their first hit, and none took on the task of making them personal with conviction.

One was able to come at the challenge more naturally than the others.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson was already in a sweat before singing a note of “Johnny Cash Heart.” The song has a good hook for Hutchinson's wheelhouse but seems a tad “too old” for the young artist, and his tensions sure got in the way. Lionel Richie opened with “Welcome to the business,” while Katy Perry told Caleb that he had to “make me a believer,” and that it was his worst performance.

Luke Bryan also reiterated that Hutchinson was “too tight” and tense to let is natural voice and manner come through.

Gabby Barrett was out to prove her vocal power on “Rivers Deep.” The tune has a blues-country vibe that fits Barrett, but she didn't find her way in the song until midway through, and it was too late. Katy Perry noted that Gabby has a “fan handler” now, and also that she is just finding her bearings as a professional. Luke Bryan reminded that “you have to sell you and the song.” Lionel Richie advised choosing songs “from the stage back,” meaning to put the audience and how the song makes them feel ahead of how it sounds in a studio. These are all lessons yet to be learned for the three.

Maddie Poppe had the help of another Iowa girl, Julia Michaels, in writing her song “Going Going Gone.” Maddie definitely seemed the most natural on stage, and the judges commented that she was more comfortable with the song, particularly noted by Luke Bryan. Lionel Richie again reminded that like it or not, Maddie is now in the “sales business” when performing. Katy Perry assured that she and her fellow judges were trying to help Maddie and the other finalists to survive and thrive “outside the bubble of ‘American Idol.’” Maddie admitted that she had only rehearsed the song twice before this performance. The panel admonished their protégés about practice and learning to “fake it till you make it” in making themselves believable onstage, overcoming their tensions.

Katy Perry described the first-round as “a disaster.” The rest of the evening would burn brighter.

Encores welcome

Caleb Lee Hutchinson returned to the Keith Whitley classic, “Don't Close Your Eyes,” and won back his audience and the judges’ panel. “Your voice is your stamp of approval,” Lionel Richie assured. Katy Perry commented that there was “light years’ difference” between the first and second of his performances. Luke Bryan said he had recovered from the roller coaster ride of the night.

Gabby Barrett returned to rough and rowdy form with Miranda Lambert's “Little Red Wagon.” She is most definitely a polished performer and knows the interplay onstage of putting on a great show. “There she is!” gushed.

Katy Perry, adding that next time, her “fringe needs to move” that and a hair flip would be nice. Lionel Richie praised the performance as “comfortable and wonderful.” Luke Bryan warned about “getting too tight.”

Whereas Gabby is the polished performer, still searching to truly define herself, Maddie Poppe is the artist, less concerned with stagecraft. She returned to her original song, “Don't Ever Let Your Children Grow Up,” and her choice pleased the panel and the crowd. Luke Bryan loved hearing the song again, but confused it with her audition song, “The Rainbow Connection.” (Maybe the whiskey in his cup was taking effect.) Lionel Richie said “Welcome back,” and Katy Perry commended Maddie as being “authentic as heck.”

Home visit warmth

Before taking the emotional dive of the hometown visits, this season’s contestants, Harper Grace, Jonny Brenns, Michelle Sussett, and Catie Turner all came back to sing a song that was an “American Idol” moment for each of them, and already, they clearly have star potential, and surging spirit, in the case of Catie Turner.

Caleb Lee Hutchinson came back to Dallas, Georgia for his mother's homemade biscuits and filling a massive stadium with a massive love for the singer. He loved seeing the green of his Southern land and loving his dog. His last performance was an up-tempo “Folsom Prison Blues,” full of fun and energy. Lionel Richie lovingly teased that “Caleb Cash” was in the house. Katy Perry raved that “You’re a big deal,” to the young man, and Luke Bryan ended with simple congratulations.

Gabby Barrett got the big hometown welcome in Pittsburgh, PA, but shared tender moments in her bedroom with family, and got lots of hugs from the pastor and church congregation where she started singing at age 10. Her eyes teared up going to the Goodwill headquarters where her dad works as a maintenance man.

Her as a was topped off by fireworks, and she created a spark of her own by performing Journey’s “Don't Stop Believing” anthem, sparkling in blue. She had the panel singing along, and proved her voice was big enough for that big song. The critique of her effort was taken on by Steve Perry himself, who called her performance “amazing” and offered more than one sweet hug.

Maddie Poppe had every kid in Clarksville, IA singing “The Rainbow Connection” to her during her hometown return. Another tender moment was singing “Amazing Grace” with her family. She filled the Butler County Fairgrounds, and her heart was clearly full. She chose Fleetwood Mac's “Landslide” as her hometown selection. Luke Bryan said that the performance was “why I signed up for this.” Lionel Richie called it an “amazing job,” and Katy Perry took it one farther, saying “I'm voting for you.”

Tonight the results will be tallied and the 2018 “American Idol” titleholder named. Each judge will be a performer, among a star-studded line-up, and certainly, more surprises.