July 08, 2008 12:00 AM

Before the live broadcast of Monday’s Nashville Star, judge Jeffrey Steele sat on his bus and spoke of Pearl Heart, the trio of sisters from Florissant, Mo., who have been under his mentorship since the day after the series premiere on NBC June 9th. “They are ready for the next step. Tonight, they are going to try something really big and really risky. Not only will they sing in three-part harmony, they’re going to play their guitars in three-part harmony. If they pull it off, it will be brilliant. If not, it will be disastrous.”

Well, the 20-year old twins Amy and Angela Krechel and 17-year-old Courtney pulled off Garth Brooks‘s tricky “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)” without a hitch, pulling the audience to its feet midway through and inspiring the typically hyper-critical John Rich to proclaim, “Girls, that was the performance of the season!”

Sadly, though their vocal and instrumental harmonies were indeed brilliant, America’s vote tally from the week before turned out to be disastrous for Pearl Heart. To the obvious shock and dismay of the judges, the studio audience and fellow cast members, the trio were sent home with the standard send-off from host Billy Ray Cyrus: “Girls, your dreams of becoming the next Nashville star are comin to an end tonight.” Not so fast there, Billy Ray! On live television, in front of millions of viewers, the sisters of Pearl Heart and their mother and father, Steele promised his teary-eyed prot g es that if they can find their way back to his Nashville studio, he will do his best to make their dreams come true.

Navy man Tommy Stanley was also sent home at the top of the double elimination show, leaving just six hopefuls in the running. If the judges had their way, Coffey (“You ain’t country, brother, Rich told him.”) and battling BFF duo Laura & Sophie (“I think you guys need to go home. You’re not ready,” Rich said of their performance.”) would be packing their bags. But as a frustrated Steele noted after the show, “There’s no predicting how viewers will vote.”

Melissa Lawson, the mother of five who has lost seventy lbs. since joining the final 12, has gone from the brink of elimination to the show’s top spot in terms of votes. And the panel agrees: “The judges have a hard time finding anything critical to say about Melissa,” says Steele. “She just nails it every week.”

Also still vying to be the hammer and not the nailed: dimpled cowboy Gabe Garcia, whose performance scored a perfect 10 on Rich’s scorecard; the ruby-cheeked Minnesotan Ashlee Hewitt, lauded by Jewel as one of the only “true artists” among the contestants; and Iowan Shawn Mayer, whose teary on-and-off stage emotional meltdowns led her to fire her original mentor Rich and sign up with Team Steele. –Kay West

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