Taylor Hicks stays pretty busy. Since winning the fifth Season of American Idol, he has toured nationally in a production of Grease, hosted the food and travel show State Plate and released three studio albums. He just wrapped a run portraying Charlie Anderson in the Serenbe Playhouse production of Shenandoah. And somewhere in there, he found time to monitor his investment in Saw’s BBQ and record and produce a new record that he hopes to share soon.
For the first time ever, he’ll perform his “American Idol Songbook.” He has made semi-regular visits to The Lyric in Birmingham; choosing various songbooks along the way. But this performance will be the first time he has explored all of the songs that kickstarted his career more than a decade ago. Before his visit, he spoke about what to expect from the forthcoming record, barbecue, golf and basketball.
You recently wrapped a production of Shenandoah at the Serenbe Playhouse. What was the experience like for you? Is that something you’d like to do more of?
I’ve done some bit parts on Law & Order and obviously the run with Grease. It’s smart for me to flesh out the idea of being an actor. It’s a part of entertainment; it’s kind of the graduation. I still do music. I still tour records. It’s one more part of the business that I haven’t explored that will probably be good to me.
I know that you’ll always come back and play Birmingham, but is acting more of your focus now? Or will you continue to do studio records?
I just finished a studio record. I feel like you have to be as versatile as you can. I just finished four seasons of State Plate, the food and travel series on Inspiration. I did that for a good two years; traveling the country and hosting television. I think it’s a natural progression of where my career has gone. I’m very fortunate to say that I’ve been in showbusiness for 15 years. When I say that that feels like an eternity, trust me. It does. But it’s a good eternity.
What can we expect from that new record and when will it be released?
That’s a good question. I’m hoping to release it as soon as I can. The acting role in Shenandoah has been a little bit of a detour. I think the focus is to release the full length record with the right vehicle. And when I say vehicle, I think that piggybacking things in this business is smart. You want to have as much going on as possible. The more you have going on, the more eyes you have on you; and the more eyes you have on you, the more products you can push. That’s the business acumen of show.
Is it a blues record? A rock and roll record?
I consider this kind of a Southern country soul record. That’s kind of who I am as an artist. I’m a roadhouse musician. I grew up in every nook and corner of Alabama playing roadhouse music; and roadhouse music can be everything from Delta blues to straight country. This record is very reminiscent of an old Jackson Browne record. It’s got a really good, Southern soulful vibe to it.
I assume that you teamed up with some folks for the songwriting. Who did you work with along the way?
Robert Randolph is on it. Keb Mo has helped me produce a couple of tracks. JoJo Hermann [Widespread Panic] is on the record. Bryan Sutton helped me co-produce some of the music. The studio band – I don’t think there’s enough papermills in all of Alabama to write everything they’ve been on and recorded.
I did it all myself. I have completely taken on the role of producing the music. I might be a chicken, but I’m no spring chicken at this point. I know what works for me and I know what songs I can get behind emotionally and I hope that people will like it.
On this visit, you’ll be doing the “American Idol Songbook.” Is this the first time that you’ve dived back into those songs that kickstarted everything for you years ago?
It is. I’ve never done the American Idol Songbook. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. It’s nostalgic. American Idol is on this season. It makes a lot of sense. I’ve never done it before; people have asked me to do it when I’ve seen them. When you ask, you shall receive.
What do you think of how the show has evolved – the new judges, new network – everything that has happened in the decade since you left?
I think the move to ABC was a really smart move. I think ABC really suits the demographic that watches American Idol. ABC’s demo is a big reality television demo; The Bachelor does really well. There’s good mojo over there for a show like American Idol, and it shows in the ratings. They’re number one in their timeslot. It’s a good network for people that like American Idol.
You mentioned your time with State Plate. How much of your professional time do you hope to continue dedicating to your love of food?
I don’t think it’ll ever end. I think it’s something that, as an Alabamian – it’s funny, I tell people that Alabamians will let you know if you can do three things: sing, cook and throw a football.
Having a great barbecue restaurant like Saw’s and a brand like that – we don’t do any advertising. That’s good. I like to look at food as being kind of like music. If a song is good – if the que is good – then it’ll sell itself. That’s kind of the way I look at the food at Saw’s. We’re trying to expand and grow; it’s a blessing to be involved with that brand and try to grow it. Being completely transparent, you have to cover your bases. Someone in showbusiness has to always be looking for things to fall back on. Luckily, being involved with Saw’s and eating as much barbecue as I can these days, it’s been fun to grow the brand.
How hands-on are you with the decision making process over there and how much are you looking to expand?
I’m not afraid to get on the line. I think people would rather hear me sing when I go to Saw’s as opposed to getting back there in the back and cook. Our goal is to get that business – that style of Alabama barbecue and the Alabama white sauce – our goal is to take it to the people. We’ve started doing that with some of the stores in Birmingham. Our goal is to grow it out; but be smart about it. We want to make sure that the people that we have working are just as excited as we are. It’s been a slow burn, but it’s burning.
Do you think Birmingham musicians today have more or fewer opportunities to find places to play than the scene had 10-15 years ago?
If you look at the landscape of Birmingham right now, the growth, the downtown area, the new restaurants that go up, the food scene, the people – there’s an excitement; there’s a buzz in the air in Birmingham in general. I think it’s easier to a certain degree when you are in a city that is progressing as quickly as Birmingham is; growing up when I did as a musician that played different places in Birmingham, we were all fighting for about four or five places. I feel like now that’s not the case. You’ve got different places – obviously new music venues that have come up. There’s an expanding outlet for – not just musicians – but for artists in general in the Deep South and in Birmingham.
Back in those days, for you, you were playing a lot with Brian Less and Little Memphis Blues Orchestra. Any chance you ever reunite with Brian and do some more of those shows?
Brian plays piano with me as much as he can. I consider him a fantastic player. That reunion concert will happen way sooner than later.
How did you feel about Auburn’s Final Four run?
The Final Four is not an easy thing to do. I don’t want to toot my own horn, but I said during the SEC Tournament that if Auburn’s guard play got hot, then they could go deep in the tournament. And I didn’t mean the SEC Tournament; I meant the NCAA Tournament. That’s exactly what happened. If they had squeaked out that win against Virginia; if they had one more game in that gym, they could have shot the lights out and easily won the national championship.
It was a magical thing for the state. It’s never been done. It’s such an amazing experience to watch. Whether you’re an Alabama fan or an Auburn fan or a UAB fan – I think if any of these teams in the state, and not just the big three – if any of these teams in the state caught a magical run like that, I think everyone would get behind it. It’s similar to the Idol run. They get behind it and they have to put their opinions aside for one sport. I don’t know if it would last in football, but it sure lasted in basketball for Auburn.
Have you had much time to check out Alabama’s hire? Nate Oats?
I think it’s a good hire. I think we’ve yet to see what he can do, but I did listen to a podcast with Chris Stewart – wonderful play-by-play announcer for Alabama – he posted a podcast about Coach Oats’s style of play using the words of Coach Oats himself. I think his style of play recruits itself. They like to get up and down the floor. It’s kind of similar to what [Bruce] Pearl has – it’s guard-heavy; they like to shoot.
It’s an exciting time for basketball in the state of Alabama. I think he’ll win some games. It’ll be interesting to see if his golf swing is better than Avery Johnson’s.
Do you still play a lot of pro-ams?
When I’m not playing music and being Charlie Anderson, my golf bag isn’t too far away. I try to play as much as I can. It keeps me out of trouble. And that’s actually an Alice Cooper quote that he told me when I played in a pro-am – the first pro-am I ever did was the Bob Hope right after Idol. I had no idea that I was going to be able to do them. My first grouping was Alice Cooper, Clint Eastwood and Scott Hamilton. They all kind of taught me how to play pro-ams. Cooper told me that golf kept him alive; it kept him out of trouble; it kept the sun on him. I thought that was a pretty profound statement about the game of golf from an entertainer’s perspective. Since then, I’ve kind of adopted that mentality.
Who’s the best entertainer you’ve seen on a golf course?
It’s not Charles Barkley. That’s a good question. There’s athletes and then there’s entertainers. The athletes get a pass because they’re supposed to be know how to handle a golf club. The entertainers? Not so much.
Alice Cooper is probably the quintessential entertainer/golfer. He’s sponsored by Callaway. He has a 5 handicap. He has a blast on the golf course. He’s not a stone’s throw from putting eye makeup on a rocking out and doing Alice Cooper.
Hoover’s own Taylor Hicks comes to The Lyric on Friday, April 26. Doors open at 7 p.m., and the show begins at 8 p.m. Tickets begin at $39.50. No opening act is listed on the venue’s website.