Panic: Big Influence on Taylor Hicks

Interview with Taylor Hicks from Relix Online
by Josh Baron

Despite the moans of “What is Relix doing covering the winner from American Idol?”—a show many probably find to be the antithesis of what this publication is about—it should be known that Taylor Hicks is one of our own. Whether it was picking up the harmonica at 15, seeing Widespread Panic and Phish in the mid ‘90s, promoting his own Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Derek Trucks show or opening for Robert Randolph, Hicks has steeped himself in the live music tradition. In fact, he credits much of it for his win. We caught up with People Magazine’s Bachelor of the Year as he was preparing to go onstage this past August as the American Idol tour rolled through Colorado

You’ve been in our “scene” for some time now, having performed on the first Jam Cruise and opened for the likes of Tom Petty, Drive-By Truckers and Robert Randolph.

I’ve been on the road for ten years. I was in a Widespread Panic cover band in college. I had some stuff I even tried to submit to Relix. I’m a music fan. As many shows as I wish I could have attended in my time, I couldn’t because I was trying to get my own music heard. These little windows of opportunity to go see Panic, MOFRO… I even played an acoustic set on the first Jam Cruise. Isn’t that funny?

To answer your first question, I need great songs. I like to write songs: I’ve written two previous albums on my own. I would like to think there are some great songs in that. Right now, I’m in the process of collaborating with some people and I just wrote a song with John Mayer that could possibly go on the album, I’m not sure. Having Ray Charles as my root—the foundation for me musically—he taught me a lot about the song and I learned from him that you have to feel a song; whether it’s yours or not, as long you can connect with the lyrics and the song emotionally, you’ll be able to connect with an audience that way. That’s how I operate. I would love to write music every day but due to a 69-out-of 80-day schedule, it’s absolutely impossible.

Given your experience prior to American Idol, is there any frustration in dealing with this album-making process, where executives or whomever are trying to dictate what they want you to do? Is there some head-butting?

You can’t teach an old dog new tricks. I am the old dog.

Hey now—I’m almost 29! Let’s not call ourselves old dogs yet!

I’m considered an older artist in the pop music genre. I don’t really care, though. All I really care about is making a really good, cool, hip record with great songs. They can’t package me, man. I’ve been on the road for ten years and know the direction I want to go in and I know my vision. It’s taken me this far to get where I’m going. I’m an artist that’s created this concept but used the American Idol machine as a marketing tool.

You’ve said that, “Having a number-one single is only the beginning.” How so? And secondly, what steps are you taking to insure your longevity as an artist in a climate where someone catapulted into pop culture like yourself can come and go so quickly?

That single, “Do I Make You Proud,” I tried to make that single my own but in reality it’s the show’s single. It’s not mine. I’ve brought a live feel to that song, but that song was given to me on the show. One song was given to me on the show and I walked out of the studio. The song that was given to me first, I got up from a chair and walked right out of the studio. The second was a little bit soulful—but nobody’s ever done that. They were just handed music to sing for the A.I. machine… I was handed this song and I was just like, “No way, you’re not going to make me sing this song. I’m out of here.” Just to kind of let you in on me knowing what direction I want as an artist.

The beginning for me on a national level was American Idol but obviously I’ve been trying to play as much live music as I could since I was about 15 or 16.

Jumping back to your formative years, how do you think your love of bands like Widespread Panic has contributed to your success?

I think they’ve had a lot do with it. What’s so cool about it is that it’s real music, it’s not fabricated. It’s real art. If I wasn’t a musician, these are the people I’d be traveling to go see. I would probably not have a day job [laughs]. I’ve just been lucky in getting some gigs to play music here and there and have kind of just stuck with that.

I was in a Panic cover band called Passing Through in Auburn and we played “Ol’ Miss” and we did some Phish and Ben Harper covers. A lot of my friends are in that scene and that’s the scene I like to be in because that’s the real music scene. You got to know real music to be in the scene, you know? That’s the scene I was in. I love real, live music, too. I’ve always studied live music. I like live music almost more than I like recorded music. I’ve relied on my live performance because I had no money to record in a studio. So the only thing I had, basically, was live gigs. And I’m so glad that I have the mentality because that’s where you make your money as an artist. Those people like Phish, Panic and the Dead, that scene taught me a lot about performing live music, and a lot of it—staying out there performing live music, night in and night out. I’m ever-indebted to that mentality of playing a lot of really great, live music. I want to go see it and I want to go play it.

What were some of your favorite Panic or Phish covers to do? And were there any particular shows that stood out for you?

I saw Phish at Oak Mountain Amphitheater in ‘99. I just remember them playing “Heavy Things” and me falling out of my chair. What’s funny is that I promoted a Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe and Derek Trucks Band show at the Alabama Theater in ‘98. That was one of those shows that I’ll never forget. I did see Panic at Halloween in New Orleans, right before that. I went down there to flyer the lot and I ended up going to the show and ended up seeing Karl Denson afterwards at the House of Blues and then Denson traveling to Birmingham and doing the show two nights later. Another show I saw was Robert Randolph and the Family Band at Zydeco in Birmingham, right when they [Robert Randolph, North Mississippi Allstarts, John Medeski] came out with The Word.

I remember seeing Panic in Montgomery in ‘96 and that’s when I started to learn about them. I had never heard their music until I started playing. I was playing “Pigeons” and never heard “Pigeons” before. That’s how I kind of learned the Panic—by actually playing it and really liking what they were doing. My music has leant its ear, so to speak, to a Widespread Panic musical configuration. My last album, Under the Radar, is very earthy. My roots are firmly planted in the good, live music earth.

Prior to last season and this most recent one, I never really watched American Idol. But in all honesty, you and Bo Bice turned my head a little bit with your musical selection.

You know what? I don’t watch it either! [laughs] You can write that.

I think a lot of music fans were impressed by your decision to cover Ray LaMontagne’s “Trouble.”

“Trouble” is a great fucking song. Not only that, that’s a great fucking album. Somebody said I should listen to Ray LaMontagne right before Trouble came out and I was a definite fan and I got to meet him at The Roxy in Atlanta. I was just a big huge fan of that album and I’m glad that that album got the respect it deserved. Anything I did on the show, I have the utmost respect for. And having some idea that if that song gets on national television in front of 40 million people, then the odds are that people are going to go out and buy that music... I really wanted to pick music that would open up the eyes of the masses.

Every song I wrote on that show, I wrote half of the endings to. They gave me the first minute of the song—the second minute of the song I arranged and wrote all of the endings and melodies. I said, “Look you’re going to give me the first minute of the song. You can clear “Taking it to the Streets” but I want to be able arrange the last 30 seconds. So all the endings that you’ve seen me do on American Idol were arranged and written by me.

I doubt many people realize that.

Nobody knows. Nobody has any idea, but that’s cool, man. It gave me an opportunity to create more good music. Being a performer in Lowell, AL, opportunities are pretty slim.

Having been a performer for some time now, what’s the biggest difference between the television stage versus the traditional live one?

The visual aspect of that show [American Idol]is equally important as the musical aspect. I knew that. Let’s face it—it’s a television show. You’ve got 40 million watching you, you have to be the most visual performer that you can because it’s television.

I’m curious about post-Idol performances… that there are now certain expectations that you have to deal with versus prior to the show, where you could really just do what you want. And I would assume having a magnifying glass hovering above you at all times is probably not the most fun, either.

Getting to this level in this business, you kind of take it with a grain of salt: You know who your friends are, you know who your family is and you know who your fans are. The magnifying glass gets a little old at times but I want to get my music out there and this is what I have to do to do that. That’s the ultimate goal for me—spread good music.

I guess part of my question had to do with audience—that you were performing to a core group of music fans and now it’s a bit more of a pop-culture audience that wouldn’t have come to see you prior.

American Idol, for me, is fizzling out. I want to take that opportunity and that exposure… You either come to see me, come buy my album or you don’t. I’m not trying to meet expectations. I’m trying to expose my music to people who might like it, come see it and come buy it. That’s me. If pop culture doesn’t like it… If you can say you’re a working musician, then you’re doing something good. I’m just glad to be a working musician because that’s what I’ve always been.

You’ve talked a little about your upbringing: that it wasn’t always easy and that you were forced to make some tough decisions early on. Do you believe that in order to sing the blues or soul, you need to experience it?

I agree, 100 percent. You’ve got to connect emotionally with your audience. I do agree that you would have to have lived a little in whatever part of your life it may be. I lived a little more than others in a really early part of my life. Those experiences and those things that happened, I believe that gets you deeper into who you are as a person.

What was your first gig?

I was about 15. I had this great, wonderful family—not my own—but a family that cultivated and pushed my talents a little bit. I was learning to play harmonica on my own. I was repeating “Take the Long Way Home” from the Supertramp album [Breakfast in America]. I was starting to learn riffs and stuff. I remember this vividly. They were a pretty rambunctious bunch and they put this big-ass white hat on me and took me to this biker bar where this blues band was playing, Corey’s Sports Bar. It was off the beaten path. I just remember playing harp and trying to hang with this band that was performing in front of all these bikers. I’ve been in the bars, man.

What’s the story with your lucky dime?

I carry it with me. And I’m not going to lie: I’ve lost it a couple of times, but they’re replaceable.

Does any part of you sense a soul/traditional R&B revival going on as seen in artists like James Hunter, Joss Stone or Little Barrie? Granted, they’re all British. Do you think, perhaps, you’re part of the American answer to that? And why now?

Soul performing is a lost art. Watch Sam and Dave sing “Soul Man” and you’ll want to watch it more. It’s a whole a different monster. You can hear “Soul Man,” but what’s so funny is that the whole thing… I have this video tape of the Stax Soul Revue from 1969 in Denmark. It was a T.V. show and it was the first time the Stax Soul Revue had gone overseas and it had Booker T. & The MGs, Eddie Floyd, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, all of these people. I started studying that as a kid, the way they moved, the way they danced. It was during the James Brown era. There’s so much footage that you couldn’t capture because technology didn’t lend itself for you to be able to just pick up and watch Sam Cooke. Some of the remarks I get on my dancing, Otis Redding could have gotten on his. They just didn’t have T.V. back then. This whole idea, this whole movement toward soul revival so to speak, I think it’s a lost art and I hope that I’ve helped spark that interest. That’s a genre of music that’s powerful in everyday music whether it be… It was just such an integral part of music that I think got lost somewhere along the way.

You were named People Magazine’s Bachelor of the Year. It seems pretty cool but is there a downside or am I trying too hard here?

I was very flattered to be called that. It’s an honor, I guess you could say, but I wouldn’t really know because I’m in the bottom of an arena in the official’s dressing room at the Pepsi Arena [in Colorado]. I’m in the darkest bowels of an arena right now, so I haven’t had much of a chance to find out.

And, finally, if you could see one person get hit in the nuts with a football, who would it be?

Probably one of those promoters that used to stiff me. The door guys at the club that knew they were screwing me on money but were ten times bigger than me. Or, after Rosanne Barr sang the “National Anthem” real bad. I don’t know if she has nuts, you might want to check.