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Birmingham soul capital? ‘Idol’ voters say yes

Alabama natives Hicks, Studdard rose to top thanks to Southern fans
/ Source: The Associated Press

The South has always claimed to have more than its share of musical talent. But is Birmingham the center of the region's singing soul?

For voting fans of "American Idol," it would seem so.

More viewers of the popular Fox television show live in the South — 39 percent — than any other region. But that doesn't explain how Taylor Hicks of suburban Birmingham became the second "American Idol" winner from the city in just five seasons, following 2002 winner Ruben Studdard.

Or how Bo Bice of suburban Helena was runner-up to Carrie Underwood last year. Or how Diana DeGarmo, who was born in Birmingham but moved to Snellville, Ga., at age 3, was a 2004 finalist.

Hicks has a notion why he was a winner. "I really believe it was fate," the 29-year-old said Thursday on "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno."

David Johnson, executive director of the Alabama Music Hall of Fame, says he can't explain why Birmingham has produced so many idols.

"But it really is amazing the talent that's come out of Alabama in the last 100 years," he said, from W.C. Handy, Nat "King" Cole and Hank Williams to Lionel Richie, Emmylou Harris and the band Alabama.

Soul Patrol on the mapWhile none of them is from Birmingham except Harris, the one-time Steel City claimed the title of Idol Town when the silver-haired Hicks received the most votes and got as much attention for his looks as his soulful singing.

"I think there really must be something in the water," Chris West said after a watch party for Hicks at his restaurant Buffalo Wild Wings. "We've had Ruben, Bo, everybody here is just really fired up about it."

And, most are quick to point out, that talent has been in Birmingham, in Alabama, in the South, long before the TV talent show.

Many credit the region's relationship with religion as a prime reason for its musical inclinations, with children often singing in their church choirs.

Studdard and Bice both sang in choirs as youngsters, and Studdard's mother, Emily Studdard, said that's where he first got a taste of performing.

"It was very important because it gave him an audience," she said. "It came from a place where he could build his confidence ... he could get constructive criticism and feel comfortable there."

Also, there's often an expectation among Southern families that children would partake in music, said Frank Adams, director of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame in Birmingham.

"Back then, everybody in the family had to do something musical," he said during a recent tour at the hall, a clarinet clutched in his right hand. "(You had to) play an instrument, sing, something — else they'll talk about you. They'll say, 'What's wrong with her?'"

Before auditioning for "Idol," Studdard was in the group Just a Few Cats and Bice was the lead singer for SugarMoney. Hicks has been touring for several years with the Taylor Hicks Band, said his father, Brad Hicks.

"I think that Bo and Ruben and Taylor were all serious entertainers and really knew that they wanted to do this for the rest of their lives," the elder Hicks said. "I think all three of those guys are really hard workers and that's made a difference."

Family tiesEmily Studdard and Bice's mother, Nancy Downes, both grew up singing in church and Downes was part of a gospel group called the Singing Jays.

She recalled how Bo started singing when he was 3 and would delight when people gave him change for performing.

"A quarter was just awesome," she said laughing. "He would just sing and sing and sing for a quarter."

Bice, who moved to Nashville after the show, let Hurricane Katrina evacuees stay in his Helena home as long as they needed. He also recently donated the outfit his grandmother made for him to the Alabama Music Hall of Fame.

That charm and hospitality has probably helped endear these singers to their fans, said Johnson, the hall's executive director.

"They're more ‘people-people' — they're from the South," he said. "It's just the upbringing. You're raised in the South and we're friendly and we're nice and we like people. We like to show that appreciation back."

The die-hard Southern pride that makes Alabamians cry out "Roll Tide" and "War Eagle" has crossed over to the singing arena and bolstered Birmingham's hold in the competition, said Charnel Wright, a reporter at local Fox station WBRC who's been organizing "Idol" watch parties since Studdard was on the show.

"When you have people who start talking about it like they do games at either Auburn or Alabama, then you know it's big," she said. "You get these people — even these hardcore sports buffs — saying, 'Taylor did well this week, but I think Ace should be off,' and these are the same guys talking about (last season's Alabama star quarterback) Brodie Croyle and the NFL draft — people are treating it as if it were sports."

Having the solid backing of your home state helps on a show where phoned-in votes decide the winner.

Also working to their advantage is Birmingham's location and size, said Mark Harrelson and Courtney Hayden, both producers at Boutwell Studios in Homewood, where Hicks cut a record about a year ago.

"Birmingham has given them that freedom to develop, I think," Hayden said. "If you were living in Philly and you were trying to break into New York, you want to be more like New York guys."