Alabama native Taylor Hicks returns to TV
By Allison Griffin
Even with an outsized personality he can put strangers at ease
The aroma of smoked barbecue wafts through the dining room of the Birmingham restaurant, a mild distraction for the team prepping Taylor Hicks for a photo shoot for Alabama Living.
The “American Idol” season 5 winner, who grew up in Alabama, is no stranger to being fussed over. It’s been 10 years since his win on the singing competition TV series, but he’s been anything but idle in the years since: Broadway, a two-year stint in Las Vegas, touring, writing music, some TV and acting appearances.
The site for this particular photo shoot is Saw’s Juke Joint in the Crestline neighborhood of Birmingham, of which Hicks is part owner. (He maintains residences in Birmingham and Nashville.) He sits patiently through the primping and posing from a stylist, but the smells of a tasty lunch beckon.
“Y’all want some wings? Let’s get them something to eat,” Hicks asks the wait staff, eager to feed his guests (and himself). He’s a natural fit in this role as host; after all, he’s been an entertainer, in one way or another, since high school. That charm, along with his soulful voice and stage presence, helped him win the top spot on “Idol” in 2006.
In short order, a plate of hot smoked wings drizzled with white barbecue sauce appears, along with some fresh fried okra with remoulade on the side and a sweet tea fried chicken sandwich, served with plenty of pickles and more white sauce.
Hicks doesn’t do the cooking at the Juke Joint himself, but he does have a new venture that involves food: He’s the host of a new TV show, “State Plate,” which debuts at 8 p.m. Oct. 21 on INSP, a cable and satellite network (visit www.insp.com to check availability in your area). The show seems to be a natural extension for his career; after all, Hicks came to the world’s attention on TV. Even with an outsized personality he can put strangers at ease, a combination that should serve him well on the small screen.
And, it allows him a chance to indulge his love of all things food. “You can’t not be a foodie and be from Alabama,” he says, taking a bite of that hot fried okra.
On “State Plate,” Hicks visits a different state for each episode, and travels within that state to find the foods that best represent the area. But it’s not just about featuring a chef or an eatery; the show is “truly a farm-to-table concept,” Hicks says, which allows him to learn about the origin of a state’s iconic foods. But each show is more than just peaches in Georgia or crab cakes in Maryland; for each episode, he samples a variety of delicacies.
The first episode features Wisconsin, where Hicks milks a cow to make cheese curds, grinds pork to make bratwurst and visits a facility that produces more sauerkraut than anyone else in the world. (Alabama isn’t featured in this first season, but Hicks said plans are to work it in for the second.)
He visits farms, ranches, markets, and festivals, uncovering the stories and legends behind each state’s unique food traditions, according to INSP. For Hicks, it’s been a true learning experience.
“I want it to be educational, first and foremost, because I’ve been educated,” he says. “And also, (I want people) to get hungry. Educated and hungry. It’s another way for people to get to know my personality.”
Standing out in a crowd
Hicks says he’s “blessed” to be back on TV, the medium that brought him to the country’s attention. Before “Idol,” he spent several years pursuing a career in music. After graduating from Hoover High School in 1995 and attending Auburn University for a couple of years, he spent a decade or so touring, mostly in the Southeast, and self-produced two albums.
In his 2007 book, Heart Full of Soul, he recounts the grueling years on the road in his 20s: trying to keep a revolving lineup of musicians together, playing gigs for next to nothing, losing money to shady promoters and owners, and living with the consequences of a partying lifestyle. Despite his father’s pleas for him to get a “real” job and settle down, Hicks refused to give up on music and touring.
In August 2005, Hicks was in New Orleans for a wedding the weekend Hurricane Katrina struck. His flight home to Birmingham was canceled, but the airline offered a voucher for a free trip to make up for it. He made it out of New Orleans safely just before the storm hit, and decided to cash in that voucher and try his luck in a city built on long odds and crushed dreams: Las Vegas.
Vegas also happened to be one of the cities holding “American Idol” tryouts, an idea Hicks had vaguely considered before Katrina. Almost on a lark, Hicks was in the line for tryouts, a gray-haired man amid thousands of barely-adults, who wanted to be Justin Timberlake or Usher.
Hicks, on the other hand, just wanted to make his own kind of soul music.
After winning “Idol,” Hicks released his major label debut, “Taylor Hicks,” which debuted at No. 2 and was certified platinum in January 2007. His signature soul-pop song from “Idol,” “Do I Make You Proud,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. A tour with fellow “Idols” followed, and in 2008 he joined the cast of “Grease” in the role of Teen Angel on an 18-month tour.
His second full-length album, “The Distance,” followed in 2009, and was released on his own independent label after Arista dropped his contract. In the years since, he’s made several TV appearances (as well as returns to “Idol”), and had a two-year residency on the Las Vegas strip.
Now, a new record is in the works, which Hicks says should be released in 2017. Earlier stories reported the release date would be this year, but Hicks says the pre-production process is slow, and deliberately so.
“I’m very traditional, and sort of an old-school mentality. As quick as the attention span has gotten through social media, I feel like a little bit of the integrity is lost these days from artists, because they feel like they have to put out a single every week. I feel like putting out the best music and the best art that I can, at a certain time.”
Throughout his career, Hicks’ music has been difficult to categorize, which may be why he hasn’t had the same chart-topper success as some of the other “Idol” winners, like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson. But few Idols have been as successful as he has been at what he calls “reinvention.” He’s a “vehicle-driven artist,” he says, with vehicles that include TV, Broadway, Vegas, touring and recording.
Asked about this new music and its genre, Hicks refers to it as “roots” music, which can refer to a broad range of musical genres – blues, folk, bluegrass, country, alt-country, gospel.
“This is the reason I love being from Alabama. My music reflects in a similar way the food. It’s just got everything in it.”
A few stories about Taylor Hicks:
- He’s played with scores of big-name artists, but one stand-out memory is playing harmonica with Willie Nelson at the famed Red Rocks venue in Colorado. “He told me that he was glad they let gray-haired guys go on ‘American Idol.’”
- Hicks has a show coming up Oct. 28 at the Lyric Fine Arts Theatre in Birmingham, where he’ll be performing the hits of Van Morrison. He hasn’t played with Morrison, but Hicks was once bumped from an appearance on the talk show “Regis and Kathie Lee” to make room for the longtime musician/songwriter. Hicks stipulated that he had to at least meet Morrison; as it turned out, Morrison and his wife watched “Idol” and knew who Hicks was, and their musical tastes were similar. “If you’re going to get bumped from a TV show, you might as well get bumped by Van Morrison,” Hicks says, smiling.
- During the Alabama Living photo shoot for this story, Hicks was fine with letting others choose his clothing and set up the shots, but he took an active role in his posing and angles. “I’m real picky about angles,” he says. “There’s an angle on me that’s either George Clooney or Jay Leno. There’s no gray area.” No pun intended.