Danny Gokey

Change is good for American Idol, according to Danny Gokey. While many fans are dreading Simon Cowell's impending exit, the Season 8 third-place finisher tells TVGuide.com that playing musical judging chairs is necessary for the aging Fox juggernaut. "I think in order for Idol to stay alive, they need to reinvent the wheel," he says. "He is irreplaceable, and when you bring someone new on, you don't want them to copycat exactly what Simon did. But you should let their qualities take over and start fresh." Gokey, who will release his debut album, My Best Days, on March 2, already has some people in mind to take Cowell's seat. Find out who he'd nominate for the judges' table, how he hopes to give back through his organization, Sophia's Heart Foundation, and more.

TVGuide.com: Have you been watching Idol?
A little bit. I've been on the road promoting my album. I've seen amazing talent from what I saw. I saw Andy Garcia because people were tweeting me about it and said he reminds them of me and that I kind of sounded like him, so I looked up his audition. I thought it was great. I saw "Pants on the Ground." At first, I didn't know what to think, but he had a point in his song. As I researched it, I find out this man is really influential and involved in civil rights, and I just think it's amazing he had something to say and did it in a fun way.

Who should replace Simon Cowell on American Idol?

TVGuide.com: A lot has changed since your season. What do you think of Ellen DeGeneres coming on and Simon leaving?
It was sad to see Paula [Abdul] go, but I think they made the right move to put someone popular and entertaining like Ellen in. Time will tell, but I think they did a good job. With Simon, they need to [bring in] someone polarizing, well-versed in music and has a lot of popularity.

TVGuide.com: Who fits that mold?
Um, Obama? [Laughs] What are the chances of getting him on? George Bush. Oprah. Maybe Will Smith. He hasn't done music in a while. Or maybe I can go on! There you go! With the amount of money Simon's making, I'll find time for it!

TVGuide.com: Why did you decide to go the country route?
I covered four country artists on Idol. My background was in gospel, but I felt like I didn't want to do that anymore. It's still me with a very soulful voice and a spiritual aspect, but it has country nuances. I'm very proud with what we came up with. "My Best Days Are Ahead of Me" is my single. My life is like a storybook and so many people just saw the first chapter on Idol with my background story about losing my wife, and now they're seeing the second chapter, where something good is happening. The crazy thing is I recorded the song months ago and I just found out recently that it was written by a man who lost his wife, so I feel like destiny has a way of putting chips in the right place.

TVGuide.com: How is Sophia's Heart doing?
Great. It promotes the arts and Idol has opened so many doors for it. Over the summer, I flew a few kids out to Idol [concerts] and we gave them scholarships. Part of our scholarship requirement is that they have to overcome something, and it was interesting to sit down and hear their stories. They've experienced such traumatic stuff and yet there was so much optimism in their eyes. We also raised money for Haiti recently. Now we're getting ready to launch our own music and arts program. I felt like America voted for me and made my dream come true, and I want to make other people's dreams come true.

Catch up on Idol with our recaps

TVGuide.com: How important was it for you to establish it in your wife's memory?
I needed to find hope somewhere and I didn't want to say goodbye. That's how it started. It feels so amazing to see kids benefit. It's like this: My wife didn't die in vain. I don't just want to be an entertainer, but I want to be a person who influences others through charitable work. I've also teamed up with Clorox, and we launched a campaign, I Don't Want to Miss, to [educate] students on flu prevention. Students can submit music entries about stuff they don't want to miss if they're sick and with every entry submitted, Clorox is giving $100 towards Sophia's Heart. It's such a nice thing because music is such a special way to communicate.

TVGuide.com: What's next for you? Are you going on tour?
Yes. We're going to do a tour with someone and do some TV appearances to promote the album. They're not [finalized] yet, but you'll hear about them soon.

TVGuide.com: Do people still come up to you about your scream in "Dream On"?
[Laughs] They do. I'm known for that, and it's cool. It was a fun, funny moment.