So the big reality TV news this week is that--only days before American Idol's season 7 search for the next Carrie Underwood (or William Hung) gets underway--that two of the talent show's previous "winners," Taylor Hicks and Ruben Studdard, have been dropped (or should I say "voted off?") by J Records.
Taylor is actually the first champ to not even get a crack at making a second post-Idol album...a sad fact now being held up as evidence that American Idol has finally jumped the shark. Or maybe "jumped the Sanjaya" would be a better phrase...
Anyway, let's put this in perspective: Taylor Hicks sold 700,000 copies of his self-titled major-label release (nearly 300,000 in its debut week). Name one other goofy, gray-haired, Doobie Brotherly white soul artist--with no video, virtually no radio play, and a truncated tour of smallish venues--who's done that lately. In the normal world, a bar-band blues singer with Taylor's somewhat unfashionable image and musical style going gold would be a major coup, or at least a respectable showing. But in the American Idol world (or in the current panicky music biz, which is frankly scrambling to sell any CDs, by anyone), this is considered a failure.
You know, maybe Taylor will actually be better off selling his own albums again, like he did pre-Idol; at least now he has a large enough audience that he won't have to market them out of the trunk of his car. Or at least it'll be a much nicer car, thanks to the royalties from those 700,000 units sold and, come to think of it, those car commercials he did.
I must admit I have a soft spot for Mr. Hicks. I think he is one of the more credible all-time Idol competitors: after all, he's a self-taught, self-driven musician who slogged it out on the blues-bar circuit for years, can write songs, plays a mean harmonica, and namechecks influences that are either somewhat obscure (Ray Lamontagne, anyone?) or date back farther than 1992. I should've known there'd be no place for him among all the Clive/Simon-groomed Carries, Daughtrys, and Jordins.
This interview I did with Taylor last year may shed some light on the Silver Fox's unique situation. Read on, and wish him (and Ruben) luck:
09/05/2007 3:00 PM, Yahoo! Music
This time last year, when a silver-haired soulman named Taylor Hicks auditioned for a skeptical Simon Cowell on American Idol, few people could have predicted then that this harmonica-wielding, table-dancing cut-up would become one of the most popular contestants in the show's history, let alone the season 5 champion. But this unlikely pop star soon won America's hearts with his goofy antics, bubbly personality, and old-school soul stylings, and soon after winning the Idol title over more conventional contestant Katharine McPhee, he was appearing in TV commercials, being named People magazine's most eligible bachelor, and releasing a top 10 album. A star was truly born.
But Taylor Hicks didn't come out of nowhere, though that may seem to be the case. The oldest Idol winner ever (at the ripe old age of 30), Taylor Hicks was paying his dues on the club circuit and self-releasing albums back when younger Idol hopefuls like Paris Bennett and Kellie Pickler were still playing with dolls. This victory has been a long time a-comin'.
And when Yahoo! Music managing editor Lyndsey Parker sat down with Taylor in his newly adopted home city of Los Angeles, she got to see a mature, serious side of the Idol that TV viewers never even knew existed. Surprisingly reserved, straightfaced, even shy (yes, shy), Taylor spoke earnestly of his battle for uncompromised creative control, his passion for classic rock and old soul, and his undying determination that helped him beat the Idol odds. Here's how their conversation went:
YAHOO! MUSIC: I know that sometimes it's difficult for an Idol winner to maintain creative control of his first album. So how did you manage that?
TAYLOR: Ha! I just insisted! Being in the business 10 years and keeping your ears open and hearing tales of other artists having the same situation, I personally wasn't going to have that. You have to be smart about the whole situation and realize that this is your music, this is your career, and it's your name, it's not the label's. So with that being said, if you understand that, then you know that artists ultimately have the say-so in the end. It was tough, but the album I recorded was a Taylor Hicks record.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Yes, the album does really sound like you. It doesn't sound like anyone tried to change what you're all about.
TAYLOR: Thank you, I appreciate that. It's all about paying dues, and struggling. You get to this point, and you've put in all these years trying to make it, and you know who you are as an artist and where you want to go. And because you went through all of that struggle and hard times and stuff, you're not gonna let anyone mess with that.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Do you think maybe you had an advantage over past Idol winners, who were younger and not as experienced as you?
TAYLOR: I think my experience helped, definitely. It made me realize what an opportunity it was. When you get an opportunity like that to be in this business, you have to take that shot.
YAHOO! MUSIC: So, how do you think an Idol contestant ultimately breaks away from the show, and becomes known as an artist in his own right?
TAYLOR: You write and you perform and you lay it down, and then you do all over again. You've just got to make really good music. You have to have great material. Because your fans are going to be the people that will always be with you, not necessarily the media.
YAHOO! MUSIC: What do you think of how the media's treated you so far?
TAYLOR: I think we're cool. I think everything's cool. You know what you're up against and you deal with it and you make the best of it.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Honestly, are surprised you won the show? You were a bit of an underdog...
TAYLOR: Um, yeah, I was surprised somewhat. But I could feel that for the people that watch the show, I was a breath of fresh air for them. I don't know if the record-buyers think that, but as far as the show goes, I was a nice breath of fresh air. And hopefully that's what I'd like to breathe into music right now. I've always had that vision to maybe upset the musical applecart, so to speak.
YAHOO! MUSIC: So where do think you fit in with today's musical climate? Or do you fit in at all?
TAYLOR: I'm just trying to make good music. If it fits in, fine; if not, someone will still buy a ticket for it!
YAHOO! MUSIC: What do you think Simon Cowell's problem is with you? This season, he actually told a contestant to stick her gum on the picture of you on the audition room wall. I didn't think that was very nice!
TAYLOR: Oh, I think it'll always be tit for tat with us--which I think drove a lot of the show last year! I think that will go on forever, but I don't mind that.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Tell me a bit about your showbiz background, before you went on the show.
TAYLOR: I lived in Nashville for about a year and a half, and I took any gig that I could possible take, no matter where it was, even if it was 200 miles out or 300 miles out. I tried sending my music to every label possible, meeting with every label possible...I just didn't fit it. I look at it as hopefully the Willie Nelson approach to music. I know of so many legendary artists that didn't fit in anywhere...because they fit themselves. That's kind of what I strive to be.
YAHOO! MUSIC: If you hadn't been on American Idol, do you honestly think you would have "made it" anyway?
TAYLOR: Probably. I started feeling my career move forward before I got on Idol, because the band I put together was great. I once asked someone, "Why is my career so stagnant?" And he said, "Well, if you got a hot band, it wouldn't be stagnant." So all these pieces came together. I had people tell me early on in my career that if you put the most creative and talented people around you, they better you, whether it's in a roadhouse band in southern Alabama or if it's out here in L.A. And I think that can be said for any business, whether it be music or accounting, you know? Those principles can apply anywhere. It just took me about 10 years to actually fit all the pieces together, you know? And then all of a sudden I win American Idol.
YAHOO! MUSIC: So what became of that band?
TAYLOR: They still play. I've got a couple of guys from that band that are touring with me now. And I'll be sitting in with them in the next year.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Are they tripping out that their former bandmate won this huge show and became this big phenomenon?
TAYLOR: I don't know if they're tripping. I mean, I was driven. I wasn't going to let anything stand in my way. Because honestly, I don't think I could do anything else! This was it. Do you think John Elway could have worked at a bank? That guy needed to be throwing footballs. That's kind of like me. I need to be performing in front of people.
YAHOO! MUSIC: At what age did you know music was your calling?
TAYLOR: It kind of dawned on me around age 18 or 19. I put all the pieces together and taught myself how to play guitar, taught myself how to play harmonica, no lessons. I could already sing, but I realized if you teach yourself guitar and harmonica, and you write a good song, and you get a good response, and you get paid for it...well, that's a no-brainer! I put myself in that no-brainer position. That's how I knew that's what I'm supposed to do.
YAHOO! MUSIC: You mentioned how important it is to surround yourself with good people. So what people did you work with on your album?
TAYLOR: Matt Serletic, who does the Matchbox Twenty stuff and did Santana's "Smooth," was the producer. He's a Southern guy and he's very artist-friendly. He understands artists. I think he respects me as an artist--as a matter of fact, I know he does, because I have a voice and I have an opinion, and he understood that. Which was really cool. One producer, one artist, one album.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Wow, only one producer? That's unusual for an Idol's debut. Did you have a hand in any of the songwriting?
TAYLOR: Yeah, I've got four songwriting credits on this album.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Again, that's unusual.
TAYLOR: Maybe I'm the "Unusual Idol"!
YAHOO! MUSIC: You're lucky, I have to say, to have that much control.
TAYLOR: You know, I went in with my guns blazing. I had to. I'm not 20, I'm 30. And I'm gray-headed, too.
YAHOO! MUSIC: So are you known as the "Problem Idol"?
TAYLOR: The problem child? Maybe so! You could say that.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Well, your fans would have been disappointed if your album had been a major departure from what you were like on the show.
TAYLOR: Yes, there was a fine line that we had to balance between radio and my music--how we could bridge the gaps between modern radio now and modern soul. I think we did a really good job of that. I've been in the studio before, I know what I hear, and I have an opinion. And I think it was heard, and I think that's the reason why we all got along. There's some good music on that album. Every song I had to feel one way or another. Very rarely in music do you listen to an album all the way through and enjoy every single track. There's very few albums that I can count on my hands that actually do that for me, in all of music. There's probably 10, but those are masterpiece works. That's what I'm trying to do.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Which albums come to mind?
TAYLOR: [Van Morrison's] Tupelo Honey. Good Old Boys by Randy Newman. Breakfast In America by Supertramp. Running On Empty by Jackson Browne. [Van Morrison's] Astral Weeks. Such great music on one album...
YAHOO! MUSIC: You know, a lot of people dismiss American Idol as fluff, but I think it actually exposes new generations to a lot of great old music like that.
TAYLOR: I've always said that. When people ask me, "What do you like about Idol?" I say, "Here you have an 80-year-old grandmother, a 40-year-old mom, and a 10-year-old kid, and all of them like 'You Send Me' by Sam Cooke." That's the reason why I'm here, the reason I was there on the show: to re-energize the American population and let them know that that music is out there still. Music that is not exactly mainstream.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Have you been watching American Idol this season?
TAYLOR: I've watched a couple of episodes. Not all the way through. Casually watching, you could say.
YAHOO! MUSIC: There are a lot of crazy people auditioning this year. Did you meet anyone like that when you auditioned?
TAYLOR: I saw them, but didn't meet them. But you know, I was just as much of an outcast as they were. I looked like somebody's dad waiting for their kid in line! So I kind of empathize with outcasts, because at that time last year, I was one too. I was the weird, shy, gray-headed guy.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Shy? You?
TAYLOR: Yeah. I still am.
YAHOO! MUSIC: You didn't seem too shy on the show!
TAYLOR: In non-working environments, I am. It's always been like that for me: night and day. I kind of like it like that; I feel like that's real. I've always studied characters, artists who have that kind of persona, and I've kind of learned from that. You take everything in and store it, then you release it.
YAHOO! MUSIC: So you're a character onstage?
TAYLOR: I wouldn't say it's a character, but I'm just an entertainer, whatever that incorporates. It's really natural. It's what I've been working on all my life and I don't know any other way. I get onstage and it comes easy. I let it happen.
YAHOO! MUSIC: So you live in L.A. now. What do you think of it?
TAYLOR: Well, in Alabama you can put your car in reverse and go 300 feet without hitting something. That might be why people don't like L.A. so much. Everyone has to have a vehicle in L.A.
YAHOO! MUSIC: OK, besides the crowded roads, do you have anything else to say about the city?
TAYLOR: I love L.A., actually. I think it's a cool town. It's a beautiful city, very vibrant. I dig living here. But my heart's always going to be in a tour bus.
YAHOO! MUSIC: Why'd you move to L.A.?
TAYLOR: For work stuff. People can smell me here.
YAHOO! MUSIC: So you mentioned your tour bus. What are your touring plans?
TAYLOR: My tour starts February 21 in Jacksonville, Florida, and goes for about four months. I'm gonna bring back all that old stuff on this tour, some obscure music that hasn't been heard in 20 years--stuff from the late '70s, early '80s.
YAHOO! MUSIC: How will you choose the songs you perform?
TAYLOR: When I look at my music, I take myself out of my being and I look at it like, "You love music, you're a music connoisseur...would you like this music?" So I have this third-person approach to my music. It's one more side to my perfectionism when it comes to that. But yeah, I'm excited about this tour. I've been playing two-and-a-half-minute TV spots for three months now, and I'm a lot more loose and open and musical and instrumental onstage than I can be in the amount of time that I've been allotted in the last few months. So I'm ready to let loose!
YAHOO! MUSIC: Are you still on a mission to introduce good music to the masses?
TAYLOR: Yeah, yeah. I'm still in teaching mode, I guess you could say. I loved to do that on Idol, and I'm not going to stop now!