Bo Update

Bo Bice Is Free as a Bird
Rocker didn't win "American Idol," and he's happy about it

Bo Bice is a devout member of a Presbyterian church near his home in Helena, Alabama, so it's apt that he should consult his spiritual adviser, Pastor Donny Acton, about a decision as major as this: Standing on the lot of a Ford dealership near Helena, the American Idol runner-up mulls whether to get his 2005 Mustang -- a souped-up 1967 replica -- in gun-metal gray or bright red with black racing stripes. A local TV news crew films his deliberations, and a dozen or so fans linger nearby waiting on autographs. Bice hollers to Acton, "What do you think, Donny?"
"Get the red," the pastor advises. "If you're going to do it, you ought to do it right."

The Southern rocker with the shoulder-length hair narrowly lost the American Idol title to angelic Oklahoma girl Carrie Underwood, but Bice isn't complaining. Orders for his debut single, featuring his cover of the Ides of March's 1970 hit "Vehicle," easily outpaced pre-release sales for Underwood's debut. Along with Constantine Maroulis, Bice was one of Idol's two "rockers" this season. With his long hair, tunics and leather sandals, he often looked like Gregg Allman guesting on an episode of The Partridge Family. Simon Cowell predicts that Idol has stained Bice as too much a pop product for the rock world. But when Bice arrives home in his new red Mustang, he gets a phone call saying that Carlos Santana wants the twenty-nine-year-old to sing a track on his next record. Two nights later, Willie Nelson brings Bice onstage during his show in Birmingham to duet on "Will the Circle Be Unbroken."

If anything, Bice is happy to be the Idol runner-up. "People ask me, 'What were you thinking while you stood there waiting for them to announce the winner?'" says Bice. "'Please, God, don't let me win this thing.' I never told anybody that. The label 'American Idol' was not for me. I'm not a pop person. It would have been even harder to play my kind of music if I had won."

Bice had the seeds for his kind of music planted early. When he was four years old, he bought three records for a dollar at a Riverdale, Georgia, yard sale: Jim Croce's "Time in a Bottle," Lynyrd Skynyrd's Second Helping and the Allman Brothers' At Fillmore East. "I can remember the first time I heard 'The Ballad of Curtis Loew,'" he says. "I remember how the room smelled, and it was quite musty. We lived in a little one-bedroom apartment, just me and my mom."

He grew up moving around the South, stopping for little more than a year at a time in Riverdale, in Huntsville, Alabama, and in Jacksonville, Florida, with his mother, Nancy. (His father split when Bice was two and has only recently tried to renew contact.) "I never realized we were poor because I always had what I needed," says Bice. "I thought we ate spaghetti every night because I loved it." Things improved for the two after Nancy married the man Bo calls "Dad," Earle Downes, in the mid-Eighties. When Bice was twelve, the family relocated to the U.K., but he returned to the States on his own five years later for college. He formed the grunge-blues trio Purge, which eventually morphed into his current outfit, Bo Bice and SugarMoney. "There's a Purge CD that recently sold on eBay for $700," he says. "Makes me wish I still had a big box of them back home.

Last year, when Bice was managing a guitar shop and playing a few gigs a week, he swore that if he hadn't made it as a musician by the time he was thirty he'd "give it up and get a day job." Today the main road in Helena is festooned with signs proclaiming "We Bo-lieve" and "Bo Rocks!" A block away, Bice shares a modest two-bedroom home with his girlfriend, Caroline, and their three dogs, three cats and two aquatic turtles. He has accumulated several guitars this year, but he made sure his new Martin acoustic was built from trees that fell entirely on their own. "I'm still a hippie at heart, you see," he says.

Following twelve days off -- during which time he planned to visit his parents in Atlanta and buy a home in Nashville -- Bice will head out on the de rigueur eight-week American Idol tour with the other top-ten finalists. In the fall he'll record an album due out by year's end. His main concern at this point is persuading his new mentor, RCA head Clive Davis, to let him put a few of his own songs on the album. "I would rather put out an album of my songs, and if it flops, it flops," he says. As for the question of whether the guy who almost won what even he calls "a poppy TV contest" stands a chance of being taken seriously, Bice says he'll be happy either way. "The people that love me are gonna buy my album, and the people that don't care aren't," he says. "I didn't go into American Idol trying to win the world over. I didn't have any game plan or strategy. I just came in being myself. And for some crazy reason, that's what people were wanting. Which is why I am truly the guy who's the most freaked out about everything that's happened."

(Posted Jun 23, 2005)

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