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Published: 2011/01/20
by Mike Greenhaus

Reinventing an American Idol: A Conversation with Taylor Hicks

Taylor Hicks is no stranger to the jamband scene. Long before he won American Idol in 2006, the 34-year-old singer/guitarist/harmonica player spent years honing his own brand of classic rock-influenced soul music on the Southeast club-circuit. An outspoken fan of jamband music, Hicks once moonlighted in a Widespread Panic cover band and was even a paid passenger on Jam Cruise in 2004—two years before American Idol changed his life forever. Since his Idol victory, Hicks has actively tried to regain his reputation as both a high energy performer and a musician, in part through onstage collaborations with the likes of Widespread Panic, the Allman Brothers Band, Robert Randolph, Karl Denson, ekoostik hookah, Ivan Neville and many others.

Earlier this month Hicks returned to Jam Cruise as an official performer—and quickly made his presence known throughout the ship through sit ins with the likes of Widespread Panic’s JoJo Hermann, the Everyone Orchestra, Big Sam’s Funky Nation, George Porter Jr. and Maceo Parker, among others. While onboard, Hicks also sat down with to discuss his live music roots, recent stint with the traveling musical Grease and how Willie Nelson changed his fashion sense forever.

Let’s start my talking about Jam Cruise. If I am correct, you were actually a passenger on Jam Cruise 2 in 2004 before you were on American Idol.

I was a passenger but I ended up doing acoustic sets in the Mermaid Lounge every morning. I think my set was probably 30 minutes or something and as soon as the Jam Room was closed I would do 30 minutes. I never will forget it: Michael Franti mixed my sound in the morning and Les Claypool too—it was funny that some of the guys would do that. That was one of those moments that I had as a passenger on the boat that blew me away. That’s the beauty of this cruise—there is no difference between artists and fans. It’s all one.

What type of music were you playing around the time you were on Jam Cruise 2? Would you say it is similar to the more organic rock music you have played since American Idol?

I started playing live music when I was about 16—when I wasn’t really legally allowed. Then it obviously got better the more I played, and I would say that my music now—and my live band—is similar to what I was doing around the time that I was on the Jam Cruise. It’s a very live, soulful, song-oriented approach to music. It’s a very organic and the live show is very important. I come from live music.

I also hear that you played in a Widespread Panic cover band in college? Were you the John Bell in that group?

Yeah, I was in a Widespread Panic cover band in college. I was definitely the lead singer, guitar player and harmonica player. We did a lot of organic, jam-based music. Hence the reason I was on Jam Cruise 2, which was on a very small boat—not like the Ritz Carlton on the water that we have now [laughter].

It was kind of a dream-come-true to come up and sit in with [Widespread Panic twice] because I spent years playing and listening to all of that music. Then being able to actually sit in with them was a great honor.

How did your first onstage collaboration with the band take place? Did they approach you or did you approach them? I believe the first time you played with them was at Los Angeles’ Wiltern Theatre in 2006?

You know, I was at the show and I got a lot of weird looks [laughter]. Being such a fan, I think it just kind of organically happened. I was able to navigate through “Fishwater,” which is not an easy thing do play on harmonica. It was hard for a few reasons: it’s the band that I grew up replicating musically, and it’s not the easiest of songs. They didn’t throw me “Let’s Get Down to Business” or something, it was “Alright, here’s ‘Fishwater!’” That’s great.

These bands all represent the module of how to build a fanbase— to create an audience, to really thrive independently. It’s a self-run business. And that’s the beautiful thing about these artists—they built their own fanbase, they have complete control over their touring and their merchandise. And, ultimately, this arena in which we live is going to be the arena that will be here forever. If you want to have longevity in this business—and you’re an artist—you need to get on the Jam Cruise. The fans in this community are the fans that hold artists up and you don’t know how much we appreciate that because it’s our livelihood. We really appreciate it.

Another artist you have collaborated with both on Jam Cruise and dry land is Robert Randolph. How did your friendship and eventual working relationship with Robert develop?

I used to open for Robert, actually, before American Idol. Around 2002, I opened for him at the Alabama Theater and got to hang out with him and was really just amazed with his music. It’s funny, as much touring as I’ve done in the last five years between my role in Grease and all my own shows, I still go to shows and to events like Jam Cruise for my vacation. And with that I’ve been able to meet a lot of the artists and a lot of the musicians that I really admire. I got to play with the Allman Brothers, too. I wish they needed a temporary or permanent harmonica player, man. I could play that role easy!

Speaking of some performances you’ve done, I briefly mentioned briefly your role in a traveling production of the musical Grease. Do you have any background in musical theater?

I never thought in a million years that I would be offered roles to star in a Broadway production, which is interesting. But there were about three or four roles that I was given, and I knew that if I found a role that was similar to my personality—as far as typecasting is concerned—I wouldn’t stray too far from who I am. With Grease, I was able to make it a signature role—I actually wrote the horn parts to “Beauty School Dropout.” That’s the interesting thing about Broadway. It is part acting but then there’s this music thing, too. If you’re given the creative freedom to make a role your own—that’s a blessing in itself. Basically they told me that all I had to do was make Frenchie go back to high school, and I’ll be cool. So I said, “Let me add harmonica, let me write horn parts for the role and do my thing.” And the demographic of Grease fans, along with the demographic of Idol fans, made for a successful, two-year 595 show run.

After that many shows you must feel a part of the character.

And not only that, I was able to design the costume that I wore. So I had complete control over the whole character because it was a signature role. I think if another role came along—that fit who I was—I would definitely think about taking it. The interesting thing about what I was able to do with the Broadway role was that I was able to come out and perform two songs off my record as Taylor Hicks in the encore of every Grease show. So we infused not only the character aspect, but we also brought out the musician/artist aspect of my personality as well each night. Then I would sign records in the lobby. It was kind of an interesting way to be both an artist and a musician and show all sides of my personality.

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