Scotty McCreery won the "American Idol" battle of the fresh-faced country crooners Wednesday, pulling more of a record 122 million-plus viewer votes than competitor Lauren Alaina.
"I never in my wildest dreams," said McCreery, a 17-year-old with a strikingly deep, old-soul voice that contrasts with his youth. "I've got to thank the Lord first ... he got me here."
McCreery of Garner, N.C., and Alaina, 16, of Rossville, Ga., represent the first all-country finale and the youngest duo ever to compete on "Idol," which is in its 10th season.
The exuberant, big-voiced Alaina performed on Tuesday's final sing-off despite a vocal cord injury that needed medical treatment. She received raves from the judges, who said she won the night.
But the consistently popular McCreery, who'd never been at risk of elimination, claimed the title and a record contract.
The teenager seemed overwhelmed as he took the stage for a celebratory version of "I Love You This Big," halting to embrace his parents in the audience, Alaina and others. Then he playfully stuck his tongue out, trying to catch falling confetti.
"It felt like a dream," McCreery said backstage in his dressing room. "It still hasn't sunk in yet, and I don't think it will for a while. I'm on top of the world right now."
He expected the contest would be close after Tuesday.
"Lauren Alaina just went out there and did her thing, especially that last song," McCreery said. "I thought she took it there. It's been a nerve-wracking day, I can tell you that much."
His victory continued a recent pattern: He's the fourth male in a row to win the Fox TV contest, with 2007's Jordin Sparks, 17, the last female "Idol."
Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood, two of the four female winners, have proved the winners with the most successful recording careers.
This season's vote total was more than three-quarters-of-a-billion, Seacrest announced Wednesday. For Fox, it's affirmation there's still life in the series that's had a long ratings reign as No. 1 but has steadily dipped in weekly viewership and seen its audience age -- something that makes advertisers balk.
Last year's season-ender, which included Simon Cowell's farewell, drew 24 million viewers. Through 2008, the winner's crowning routinely drew more than 30 million viewers.
McCreery commented backstage Tuesday on the loyalty of country fans, and they clearly gave the show a boost. Fox didn't announce the number of votes for the much lower-key contest between winner Lee DeWyze and runner-up Crystal Bowersox in 2010.
In 2009, when winner Kris Allen and Adam Lambert duked it out, more than 100 million votes were cast.
This season, Fox dropped the minimim age for contestants to 15 -- Alaina's age when she auditioned last year -- which may also have brought fresh viewer interest.
The show remains a hot promotional platform, with Seacrest helping some of the visiting pop stars push either movies (Black's new "Kung Fu Panda 2") or a Las Vegas show (Gladys Knight). Lady Gaga, whose new album "Born this Way" is out this week, was another performer.
The grandest bid for attention came from Broadway's troubled "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark," with composers Bono and The Edge performing with the musical's star, Reeve Carney.
Other high-wattage stars who performed Wednesday at the Nokia Theatre included Beyonce and Tony Bennett.
McCreery and Tim McGraw sang "Live Like You Were Dying," while Underwood returned to "Idol" to pair with Alaina on "Before He Cheats."
Judge Jennifer Lopez -- draped in a scanty outfit and shaking her famous booty -- took the stage to dance while husband Marc Anthony sang, turning the night into a family affair.
On Tuesday, Alaina's tunes were Underwood's "Flat on the Floor," Pam Tillis' "Maybe It was Memphis" and "Like My Mother Does," an emotional tribute to her mother in the audience.
McCreery sang his future single, "I Love You This Big," along with his version of Montgomery Gentry's "Gone" and George Strait's "Check Yes or No."
"These kids are so young ... I just go, 'Wow.' They embody what this whole show is about," judge Randy Jackson said backstage Tuesday.
AP entertainment writer Derrik Lang contributed to this story from Los Angeles.
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