April 24, 2006

Magic City Idols

Why Birmingham, Alabama, is the king of TV's hottest show.

Laura Tucker Gallitz

Taylor Hicks will either win or be chosen as runner-up in this season's American Idol. For fans of the show, this may seem like a bold prediction, as there are still several talented contenders with devoted supporters. Hicks, though, hails from Birmingham, Alabama, and our fair city is the unofficial center of the Idol universe.

Taylor Hicks
All photos: Wikipedia
Taylor Hicks
Runners-up Bo Bice and Diana DeGarmo have strong ties to the Magic City. DeGarmo was born in Birmingham and Bice made his hometown in the Birmingham suburb of Helena. Season Two's winner, Ruben Studdard, was raised in the 'Ham and still lives here. (His custom-made jerseys also boasted the city's area code, 205.) Hicks will get the coveted recording contract this May because he, too, was born and grew up here. If he does not win outright, it will be only because he briefly moved to Nashville before returning home to our more-obscure music scene.

Why are these Alabamian contestants so successful? What is it about the Birmingham community that makes its progeny more likely to win? The answer is a strange combination of religion, karaoke, and pride.

'One kid is OK, the rest of them blow.'

At first, I theorized that our city's overabundance of churches was the key to this singing success. After all, there are 2,359 results for "church" in Birmingham on, and almost all of these houses of worship incorporate some form of music in their worship services each week. That means there are a lot of opportunities for budding vocalists to perform.

I brought my theory to the University of Alabama at Birmingham's Neal Matherne, a young instructor in the Department of Music. Matherne is a professional musician in addition to being UAB's foremost authority on pop music and culture. (He generously donated his time for this article, as he also teaches at Birmingham-Southern College.) Via cellphone, he excitedly describes a typical minister of music trying to deal with a children's choir. If there are eight kids in a group, for example, "One kid is OK, the rest of them blow."

Matherne described how a loving environment like a church sanctuary rapidly becomes competitive. The one child who has the best voice will be assigned the solos, and therefore force the other children to improve their own singing in order to garner the same praise that the star is getting. He describes music ministers as "little entrepreneurs" who must bring their church's music program up to par or else face losing congregants to the church around the corner.

Ruben Studdard
Ruben Studdard
This is why we see Idols like Ruben Studdard acknowledging their gospel roots. During Ruben's run on Idol, both the show itself and other coverage of Ruben-mania often showed Studdard's home church, Rising Star Baptist, as the headquarters for viewing parties. Although DeGarmo is now a resident of Georgia, she likely still attends church. Her uncle, Eddie DeGarmo, is one half of DeGarmo & Key, one of the most successful contemporary Christian acts ever.

Bo Bice has also leaned heavily on the church. His home congregation, New Hope Cumberland Presbyterian Church, not only hosted watching parties, but his pastor, Donny Acton, became something of a local celebrity as Bice's spokesman. During the controversy over Bice's prior drug conviction, for example, Acton did damage-control with the local media. Fortunately for Bo, the locals accepted him as a good churchgoer, and few of us sat and counted the months between when he married his girlfriend, Caroline Fisher (June 15, 2005) and when she gave birth to a son, Adian Michael (September 24, 2005).

(Minor side note: The media often got the lengthy name of Bice's church wrong in print; see examples here and here. He attended New Hope Cumberland Presbyterian Church. As the author of this article and an elder in the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, I'd like to point out that a) this is a small denomination, a little more rural and evangelical than "regular" Presbyterian (PCA or PCUSA) and b) Bo Bice is our Most. Famous. Member. Ever.)

However, Taylor Hicks seems to have no such ties. There have been no real reports on his religious status, but a recent article in the Birmingham News offered a bit of Taylor trivia. Included was, "Church he attends: 'You know where my church is? My stage.' " As Hicks's star begins to rise, the Birmingham-church-Idol connection weakens. If Hicks loses, I will claim it is because he is, as we say in the Deep South, a "heathern."

The Karaoke Capital of the South

Another possible reason for the wild success of the Birmingham contestants is that the area has quite the music scene. All four of our Idol singers were professionals long before they auditioned for the show. Studdard's affiliation with the band Just a Few Cats directly resulted in his trip to the auditions. DeGarmo has been singing in local productions since she was tiny. Bice had played gigs throughout the state, most recently with SugarMoney. Hicks was making a name for himself in local establishments when he tried out.

Bo Bice
Bo Bice
Birmingham, like any city, always had its fair share of talent. And as the area has grown (and more recently, sprawled), so have the number of venues. There are now dozens of bars and restaurants featuring live music, from the hip city center to the exploded suburbs. Through the prominence of free weekly and biweekly publications, and through the magic of the internet, it is now much easier to find out which acts are where. It is also easier for acts to get promoted locally, as the Birmingham Weekly and the Black & White compete for the same stories as "City Scene," the Birmingham News's weekly entertainment insert. In such a small area, a little good press can go a long way.

I visited the Open Door Café, a small restaurant with a proportionately large bar where Taylor Hicks sometimes played. The establishment sits on the border between Birmingham and its most affluent suburb, Mountain Brook. Several men and women who paid more for their shoes and purses than I did for my first car were holding court on the night of my visit. I hoped to glean some insights for this piece, but a quick poll of the staff indicated that they have few solid theories on why Birmingham produces such successful singers. One diner's theory was that American Idol provides maximum exposure for previously underexposed talents. "Birmingham doesn't have any major venues" like the House of Blues, according to patron Laura Christenbury. There are lots of small places like the Open Door around town, but there’s no large, ultra-hip defining club where, if you get the gig, you’ve made it. One bartender claimed she knows Taylor, but "hates American Idol" and thus declined to discuss the matter further.

There is no doubt that the success of Idol has caused the karaoke scene to explode in Birmingham. Half the people in the bar expect to be the next Taylor, Ruben, or Bo. Neal Matherne, the music professor, isn't happy with the phenomenon, but he admits it may help prepare contestants. Idol, after all, awards few points for originality. It's a "sing-your-favorite-cover" show, Matherne points out. That is good for Alabama on the whole, because if it were a songwriting show, we may be at a distinct disadvantage. Matherne says there is virtually "no public-school music program" statewide.

Pride of Dixie

As Southerners, we have a huge self-esteem problem. We must face, as Matherne says, that "we have a crappy national image." We are constantly reminded of our less-than-stellar past, especially when it comes to the remaining vestiges of slavery and the civil-rights movement. The South is portrayed as the least tolerant, least educated, poorest, and least healthy area of the country. I'm not saying it's not our fault, but Matherne thinks that it is because of that image that many of us have been provoked to get on the national stage and compete. Fortunately, America doesn't demand from its next idol a lot of education or couth. We don't need our entertainers to be anything more than entertainers. (Note: This also applies to football players.)

Speaking of our weak national image, though, I would like to turn your attention to a related article that appeared last week in the Washington Post. Just as I was revising this piece, Neely Tucker (no relation, I think) came out with his, titled "Who Put the Y'all in Idol?" Its opening salvo: "For five years, the most wildly popular talent contest on American television has been dominated—thoroughly, totally and completely—by kids from Southern Hicksville, USA."

While it may seem to Tucker that the Birmingham Idols were born in a barn, they actually come from fairly recognizable cities. Ruben, Taylor, and Diana hail from Birmingham, the largest city in the state. Bo was born in Huntsville, with a population north of 500,000; it's known as the Rocket City because of NASA's huge operation there. Even Diana's current home of Snellville, Georgia, is a hearty suburb of Atlanta.

By focusing on the mythical backwoods, though, the Washington Post's Tucker misfires with his conclusion, which seems to be: The only way a lot of kids stuck in one-horse towns know that they can find life-changing fame and fortune is on the stage. Birmingham has plenty of horses, thank you very much.

Diana DeGarmo
Diana DeGarmo
Birmingham Idols are successful because we want them to be. We're a deeply competitive group. For our in-state football rivalry between Alabama and Auburn, we must choose sides at birth. When we're told that we can vote for our hometown hero, over and over again, by calling a toll-free number or paying our wireless provider to send a text message, without leaving the couch, we are very excited. So excited, in fact, that we put it on the news! I haven't had the privilege of watching the local news in other cities during an AI season when one of their folks was in the running, but here, we go nuts. Birmingham's Fox 6 station's local coverage is saturated with Idol stories. We want our candidate to win! Let's interview his mom, brother, cousin, teacher, chihuahua, etc. This information makes us more connected to the celebrity, in some way.

This also mirrors the way we Southerners, especially those of us from the center of the universe, Birmingham, tell stories. We are deeply interested in how the person is connected to us, even if it is just because we are from the same place. My friend Jane breathlessly reports seeing Taylor's mom at the mall, talking loudly on her cellphone, explaining in detail how to vote by text message. I'm the same way. Taylor Hicks was born at St. Vincent's Hospital in Birmingham. So was I! Bo Bice sings at his church. Me, too! Ruben Studdard likes to eat at Green Acres Café. I drive past there every day!

As Southerners, we take these “human interest” stories to heart. Our hunger for these types of tales is both satisfied and fed through our local media. Because of the million little ways we're all connected, Birmingham-area residents vote like crazy for their American Idol contestants. In the Washington Post article, Tucker tries to throw cold water on this theory by saying there are not enough people here to make a difference in the national votes—and by strangely italicizing the word "penetrates"—but what he doesn't take into account is that unlike in the Presidential elections (which seem somehow to have less bearing on our daily lives), Idol ballot-box stuffing is encouraged and legal.

Speaking of which, I have to make a phone call. Go, Taylor!

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