|Kris AllenAlthough previous contestants played their own instruments on American Idol, few benefited so greatly from the experience as Kris Allen, whose classic singer/songwriter vibe earned him a first place finish in 2009. Pitted against powerhouse vocalist Adam Lambert at the show's conclusion, Allen wisely emphasized his wide-ranging abilities as a musician, playing piano during a soulful rendition of "Ain't No Sunshine" and strumming the guitar for an acoustic take on Kanye West's "Heartless." The instrumental accompaniment paid off, as Allen was crowned the show's victor on May 20th, 2009.Born in 1985 in Jacksonville, AK, Kristopher Neil Allen embraced music at an early age. He took up the viola during middle school, earning a spot in Arkansas' all-state orchestra before teaching himself to play guitar several years later. While studying business at the University of Central Arkansas, he delved into songwriting and recorded an EP, Brand New Shoes, with the help of two classmates. The EP's material showed traces of Jason Mraz's soulful, folk-influenced pop; moreover, it gave Allen enough confidence to audition for American Idol in 2008.Hailed as the dark horse of the competition, Allen slowly amassed a TV following with performances of the Swell Season's "Falling Slowly," Michael Jackson's "Remember the Time," and Donna Summer's "She Works Hard for the Money." Although he shared a room with Adam Lambert throughout the season, Allen proved to be the stylistic opposite of his contender, whose theatrical performances and octave-spanning vocals often contrasted with Allen's unassuming demeanor and laid-back, guitar-driven arrangements. Such differences contributed to Allen's first place victory, and the singer hit the road shortly thereafter on the annual American Idol tour. He also prepped his debut album for release in late 2009.