Written by Lindsey Osborne
I’m meeting Taylor Hicks in a place where I’m sure to have sauce running down my chin within minutes—Saw’s Juke Joint, the restaurant Hicks co-owns. I’m somewhat worried about conducting an interview—an interview with a guy who won American Idol, has had a No. 1 song on the Billboard’s Hot 100, and has been on Broadway no less—while licking remoulade sauce off my fingers, but then again, what’s a better way to break the ice? I order the fried green tomato BLT and let the remoulade fall where it may.
We start the interview talking about what started it all for Hicks: the love of music, something he says has been a part of him for as long as he can remember, so much so that he feels that it’s in his genes. “My two great aunts were the first female bluegrass duet on NPR radio out of Oakridge, Tenn. They were the Dickinson Sisters. I believe the music skipped a couple of generations and it landed with me,” he says. “I really believe that music is hereditary to a certain degree. I think there’s a gene that you acquire—the musical gene. Because every instrument that I’ve played is self-taught.” And Hicks, 39, has known for a long time that music would be his thing: “I was listening to Otis Redding [playing] in Dusseldorf, Germany, when I was 10,” he says. “[Age] 11 and 12 were really about musical exploration. Ray Charles was the root of my musical tree, and it branched out from there. The blues and soul—that’s where it started for me.” Years later, he would sing Sam Cooke—hailed as the King of Soul—for his first audition on American Idol.
“You know, everybody’s kid can sing,” Hicks says. “But then I started teaching myself harmonica and instruments.” Hicks was learning to play harmonica using his perfect pitch—he matched the planes going overhead, fire sirens, and air conditioners that he heard on the street. “I started realizing this might be something that’s a calling,” he says. “And that’s when I started writing.”
Raised in Birmingham, Hicks graduated from Hoover High School in 1995 and went on to enroll in Auburn University. From there, he decided to pursue a career in music and spent the next decade touring, mostly in the Southeast, and self-produced two albums. “It’s definitely not an easy path,” he says. “I was couch surfing at 28. But it was music or bust.” Those years were not only pivotal in helping Hicks hone his craft and style and expose his music, but they also equipped him with experience that was invaluable after his Idol win. “It’s a 10-year overnight success story,” he says. “Learning the business of music [beforehand] has helped. There’s a famous quote that says, ‘There’s music and then there’s music business.’”
Hicks was in Louisiana when Hurricane Katrina came through the state in August of 2005. He took one of the last taxi cabs out, eventually making it home to Birmingham to find his flight canceled. To make up for it, the airline company offered him a flight to anywhere in the country. “So I flew to Vegas—of course,” he says with a grin. “I got to Vegas about midnight and my brother called me shortly thereafter and told me American Idol tryouts were in three hours. So I went down and got in line. It was completely on a whim.” Hicks says that with his trademark gray hair—it’s been gray since high school—“Everyone was asking me where my kids were who were auditioning.”
Many of us remember watching the fifth season of Idol, seeing a hometown boy taking the stage and making it his own (Hicks says he just imagined it was the stage at the Flora-Bama in Perdido Key, Florida.) And spoiler alert: Hicks won the thing that year. “I realized that it was my break. I didn’t realize it would be a visual break, though,” he says, speaking to the power of his audience seeing him perform as opposed to hearing him recorded. “When I realized that the visual aspect was a very important part, I realized having a medium in which I could utilize that was truly a blessing.” Hicks found that Idol wasn’t just about singing (though that year it was strictly a singing competition—no instruments were allowed to be played by the contestants) but also about creating a persona, someone America could and would believe in. “You have to create your own monster, so to speak,” he says. “A musical, lovable monster. And it materialized in a big way.” Millions fell in love with Hicks—in fact, 200 million people worldwide watched him win. “That show at the time was the hottest show,” he says. “I like to say that it was the only night that Alabama and Auburn fans ever agreed on something.”
In the decade since, Hicks has paired his “overnight” success and his music business acumen to build a thriving career. Immediately following Idol, he released an eponymous album. It included the song “Do I Make You Proud,” which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s Top 100, and became Platinum. That was followed by 2009’s The Distance. And while it’s the music he loves, Hicks has never been afraid to venture into new territory regarding his career. He’s had appearances on shows like Law and Order: SVU and Celebrity Apprentice. In 2007, he penned a best-selling autobiography, Heart Full of Soul. “It doesn’t matter what stage, as long as it’s a stage,” he says. “Music is the root, but it branches out into different things. I took every opportunity I was given; I sunk my teeth into the whole entertainment community. There’s a thousand different working parts. I’ve also been taking some acting classes and flushing out some more TV and film possibilities. You want to have things piggyback off of each other, so the more you can cross-pollinate, the better off you are. It’s just like any other business.”
In 2008, he starred as Teen Angel in Grease on Broadway, which turned into an 18-month national tour and nearly 600 shows. “Being a part of a Broadway show was phenomenal,” Hicks says. “I really have a lot of respect for those actors and actresses.” He’s also the first Idol winner to land a long-term residency, which he did in Las Vegas in 2012. He played five nights a week, first at the Bally and then at the Paris Las Vegas, for two years. It was exhausting, he says, but it was definitely something special. “I loved it and will definitely go back at some point,” Hicks says. “Living in a hotel on the strip [in Vegas] is a very interesting lifestyle, to say the least. It’s like The Hangoverand Groundhog Day all at the same time, with shows every night. It was amazing to be a part of the landscape and the history—I loved having my own show and I had a blast. But I had to take a break, because two years on the strip will wear you out.”
Shows five nights a week for two years may be exhausting, but that exhaustion isn’t the most challenging part, Hicks says. Nor is the travel or the celebrity—all of that he expected as part of the dream. The most difficult thing, he says, is returning to the drawing board and leaving with a fresh idea each and every time. “I think the hardest part is the reinvention,” he says. “Reinvention is key in my business. You have to do Broadway and do Vegas—you have to do something different to keep people’s interest.”
He says he is constantly working to create something brand-new, and he hasn’t run out of good ideas yet. Right now, he’s recording a new album. “I’m working on finding the right music and writing the right music,” he says. “It’s a process, making sure you put out the best music you can, which is my goal. This one will be a lot more roots-y and more country sounding—like the stuff I grew up on.” The album’s release date hasn’t been secured, but Hicks promises it’s coming sooner rather than later. In the meantime, he’s touring; in fact, he’ll be at the Lyric Theatre on April 15 and April 17 (tickets are available at lyricbham.com.)
Ten years ago, Taylor Hicks stood in front of the American Idol judges (the original three: Randy Jackson, Paula Abdul, and Simon Cowell), and said, “I want my voice to be heard.” When Cowell asked him why, he responded, “Because I feel like I’ve got one.” He proved then that he was right, and he continues to do so at every turn with every reinvention. “The goal was to make it, however, whenever,” he says. “I’m now a decade in show business, and I’m very proud of that.”