Bo Bice pushed into America's pop consciousness on American Idol, where judge Paula Abdul told him, "You're a wonderful soul, and the rest of the world's going to get to experience that." Although Idol gave Bice his star turn, he was making music long before appearing on the show; some of the songs he's now recording are 10 years old. He's one of the few Idol success stories who is an accomplished songwriter, and his songs tell his story. Bice brought what he calls a "Swampy" sound to the show, and took the bold move of singing a capella.Shawna Ortega (Songfacts): When you sang the Badlands' "In A Dream" on American Idol, whose decision was that to do that without accompaniment of any kind? Was that yours?
Bo Bice: Yeah. Initially, I had picked the same song as Carrie (Underwood), and I can't remember exactly what it was. And you're not supposed to change your song at the last minute. Because obviously, they've got a huge band and they can't just learn a new song at the drop of a hat. But the song got cleared. It had not been cleared before. So it had come in that week or whatever, and been cleared, and I asked if I could change my song. Of course, I had to perform it for some folks, for some producers and stuff. And they kind of looked at me funny, and one of them I remember saying, "You know that no one has ever done an a capella version of anything this far in the competition." No one's ever done it past the top 24 or whatever. He said, "You've got a 32-piece orchestra and band, and you want to go on in the top 3 and do an a capella? OK. If that's what you wanna do, you do it." And I did. And it was no stretch or anything. I love the song, I love Ray Gillen and Badlands, and I used to use the song every night to warm up, so I could set my levels in clubs and in acoustic gigs. I would sit and tweak the cues while I'm singing instead of going, "Check, check, check one-two, check one-two." So it's just a song that I love that got cleared.
It's like everything else in my life. I believe in God, believe in faith. That doesn't mean you should just sit back and wait for something to come to you. There's been a lot of Karate Kid incidents in my life where it's kind of like "wax on, wax off," and I complained about it while I was doing it, but being able to sit where I am today, and have the blessings that I do right in front of me every day, I feel like I worked hard for it, but I also feel like I need to work hard for it every day. There's people out there in the world working hard every day, breaking their backs. And I just kind of break my back in a different way. And let me tell you something, mine's not hard work, if it wasn't for these fans we wouldn't have a gig. So first and foremost, the fans out there, we try and make them happy, and do the things that we know makes them smile. I think if you're true to yourself, your fans will see that, and they'll always stay true to you. It's not about selling records, it's about people understanding and getting it. And so we're blessed - very blessed to have this gig.
Songfacts: I understand that you wrote all of the songs off of your new album, I thought, Cool, let's get some stories. The first song that I am interested in hearing the story behind is "Witness." Can you talk to me about that?
Bo Bice: "Witness," that song, I've been playing for almost a decade now. I've played it everywhere from bars and clubs to churches. And now it was the first single off the album, so I found it quite ironic. I'm about people loving people, I'm a big peace kind of person. I'm a Southern cat, so I love Southern culture. But I've also lived all around the world. So I think that's one of the songs that had a lot to do with experiences and travel and things like that in my life, to where it really is a song just about, Hey man, can we all just get along? Can I get a witness? I love it. It's powerful, it's a powerful song, but it's also one that I wrote a decade ago.
Songfacts: What is your favorite song on the album?
Bo: Well, my favorite song on the album was "Can't Take The Country Out Of Me," which is about a lot of my favorite, favorite all time Southern rock folks on the country scene who really paved the way for me to be able to come out and do this. It's really awesome. You can even do a yee-haw along with it if you want to. (laughs)
Songfacts: "I'm Gone," is there any story behind that?
Bo: "I'm Gone" is a song I wrote with Chris Tompkins, who is a friend of mine, has been for eight years or so. We met in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Chris Tompkins wrote "Before He Cheats" for Carrie Underwood, and he wrote "Havana Breeze" for Jimmy Buffett, and he wrote "That's How They Do It In Dixie" for Hank Williams, Jr. He's a really successful, great songwriter, I'm real proud. That's actually where the name Sugar Money came from. We played in a band in Muscle Shoals. Shonna Tucker and Jason Isbell from the Drive-by Truckers, Garry Nichols, and myself, and Chris Tompkins, all played in this little band in this old house. We've been friends for a long time, and when I was recuperating from my surgery he was one of the first people that I reached out to to write. He came over to the house, and the opening lick for that song I had just worked on… I remember writing it in the back lounge of a bus. And he came in and had the rhythm guitar part, started playing it, and started singing. He wrote the first line, "I'm gonna give leavin' a brand new meanin', show you how it feels to be alone." And from that it's kind of a song that wrote itself between us. So it's just two friends kind of hanging out.
Songfacts: It sounds kind of like, OK, I'm done with you, I'm outta here. Were you directing this song at anybody?
Bo: I don't think so much. That was one of the songs that I sat down, and one of the ones that kind of come out. They just come out, it's whatever you're feeling, whatever you're going through. I've experienced everything that I wrote about in the song, but it was more of a song that we sat down, and after that line came out, we wrote the song. It became a story. We were telling somebody else's story. Looking back now as a finished composition, I can see my story in it. But while we were writing it, it was more like two songwriters writing a song, and we got on a good hook, we got on a good story. And it's like two writers sitting down and trying to write something, like a TV show or anything else. Start out with "Hello" and you end with "Goodbye," but what really matters is what's in between.
Songfacts: Let's talk about the title track, "See The Light."
Bo: "See The Light" I wrote with my friend Thomas Lee, who is my keyboard player. And he has been with me for a couple of years playing keyboards, and played the keyboards on "See The Light." When Thomas recorded that, he had this drum track that was kind of just a looped drum track. And Steve Gorman from the Black Crowes played the drums. And we loved the loop and the way it sounded, so we had Steve go one time through to just get that loop sound, sample, that you hear at first, and then you hear half way through, and then the big drums kick in. So that was a cool layered song. I remember working on different parts of that from the dobro to the harmonica, and just the loops. That's the same thing in "Witness." We have this one part in "Witness" that we call "Witness Weirdness." After the talkbox solo, there was a bunch of reverse tracks. I would play something on guitar, we'd splice it, we'd cut it, we'd reverse it, put effects on it, all this stuff. And it ended up sounding like that. We did some of the same stuff on "See The Light." I co-produced this album with Frank Lidell, and "See The Light" is the one song that had the most presence of Frank Lidell on it. He really had a lot to do with that, with the background singers and hymn. That wasn't Thomas playing on that one, but he did a great job on that. So that was one of the songs that I felt like Frank really shined through. Came across great.
Songfacts: Is it based on any personal experience?
Bo: I try my best every day just to be a good Christian and to be a good person. And so for me, it's kind of a redemption song. It's about seeing the light. We all try our best, we all work hard, and to me there's a meaning, "cross the river, just past the smoke screen in your eyes," it's like a congregation. You're going to see the congregation. If we had done a video for that, I could have almost written a video in my head. It's just like a deliverance song. Everybody's been down, everybody's felt imprisoned. But we're all going to get through it.
Songfacts: I love this line about how your eyes gave you some damn good shade. That's perfect.
Bo: When I was writing that, that was one of the songs that was written where Thomas wrote certain things. Thomas wrote some of the melody line and some lyrics, and then I came in and ripped that song apart. Wrote a chorus to it and changed a few lines here and there. So that was like two different coasts writing. I think Thomas was in L.A. writing, and I was back on the Nashville road on that song at the time. So it was a song he had initially written himself, and then I came in and changed and kind of made it my own. It's really cool. That's the beauty of teamwork.
Songfacts: My favorite song is "This Train," off of your new one. Now, that almost sounds like it's about your career. Like, "I'm on my way."
Bo: That again is another song Thomas and I wrote. And I liked it. I dug certain things about the song, and I just wanted to take it and make it more mine. So I took it, and he gave me permission to change and kind of make it fit me more. And it is one of my favorites, too. When I think of right down the middle of Bo Bice, this CD really capitalizes on everything. The only thing I really felt like I should have gotten more into was kind of my Jim Croce side, and singer/songwriter side. But I mean, I've got a lot more CDs to come. That's what's cool. You can reinvent yourself and do different aspects. So for me, I felt like as far as the rock goes, the Bo Bice rock, I felt like this was a nice representation, this whole album. And "This Train" was, for me, like the right-down-the-middle song. I talked about how "Witness" was real rocking, in your face, and then you've got, "See The Light," which was swampy, and "This Train" is just kind of that right-down-the-middle, you can't help but bob your head.
Songfacts: Can you explain "swampy"?
Bo: "Swampy" is like real Southern fried music. Like "See The Light" would be considered swamp music. At least where I come from.
Songfacts: What other song has a certain special meaning for you?
Bo: Well, "Whiskey, Women and Time" is about ten years old. That one's special. I love all the big guitar solos and stuff in it. But that song was written over a decade. I mean, it literally took a decade to write that song. It just kept evolving and growing. On this CD, my favorite song is a song I wrote called "Papillon," which we're putting out on the Live CD probably, as a bonus or something. But on the new CD See The Light, I think "Sinner In A Sin" is my favorite. It's about a decade old, too. I remember writing that song, it was at a bad time in my life. And I think, looking at where I am and the road that I've traveled, getting older has helped me to look back on all the experiences that I've had. And instead of saying, Man, I got screwed, or I got done wrong on this, you try to look at the life lessons that you've had, and the way that you went through, and you made it through. That's what it's about, it's about making it through: all right, things are bad right now, and they're not going to be better until you don't know when, but some day you're gonna get through it. So that's what "Sinner In A Sin" is every time. There's one line in that song that, still to this day when I sing it, it takes me back to one night.
Songfacts: Which line?
Bo: "Gonna paint the town tonight, use colors, green and amber," and I'll leave it to interpretation, but the one line that still sums me up to this day, I think, is "it's the chaos I understand, and the calmness in my rants and anger." I think those kind of lines are weird little metaphors, but looking back on them now I think they kind of really sum up some of the feelings and things that I was going through at that time. Even to this day, sometimes in that last statement, "It's the chaos that I understand," it's kind of weird, because we live in this chaotic world of music and travel and hustle and bustle and doing. You know, buy/sell/hold. Whatever. And it kind of weird, you get used to that chaos and then you find some kind of calmness in it. But I mean, that's what's beautiful about music and about writing is that it can mean so much. It means so much to me because it's a story, it's a true story for me. But to someone else, it's a true story to them.
Songfacts: Can you talk about what it was that you were going through at the time?
Bo: Bad break up, just not at a good point in time in my life. I was doing a lot of drugs and partying a lot, and just wasn't a good time in my life. I think that right now, though, looking back… it's why I don't ever complain about a single day, because I'm so blessed to have such a wonderful life. I literally have more than I should ever deserve. I've got a beautiful family, a beautiful wife who wants me, I get to do what I love for a living. It's almost kind of weird, and it sounds silly, I'm not being "poor pitiful me," but it's like, How do you write sad songs when you get everything you wanted? (laughs) It was easy for me to write sad songs back then. Now how am I gonna write them? Now I'm trying to think about the next album, because I used all my good stuff on that one. I shot myself in the foot.
Songfacts: You just worked with several other country artists on a project, didn't you?
Bo: Yeah, I worked with Henry Paul from Blackhawk, and Jimmy Hall from Wet Willy, and Dan Toler from the Allman Brothers, and Steve Gorman from the Black Crowes, and myself. I did two tracks on an album called Brothers Of The Southland. It's all of us playing and we did "Can't You See" and "Dreams." And so we had a lot of fun doing that project. All those guys are wonderful. It was wonderful for me to be hanging out with some legends.
Songfacts: Why did you guys pick "Can't You See"?
Bo: What happened, really, was in the whole weird kind of wrap-up thing, I was doing Blades Of Glory for the soundtrack. And I met Steve Gorman; Steve and I got to be buddies. He played on my album. Steve was standing around talking about my album to a guy, and the guy was doing a project with George McCorkle from the Marshall Tucker Band. Was tied in with my buddy D. Scott Miller, and they asked me if I wanted to do a song, and I happened to pick "Can't You See." So it all worked out great. I kind of threw my name in the hat when we got to be buddies and next thing I know I'm hanging out with them in Nashville, and we're shooting a video, and we've got a video we've already shot and we recorded. And I also worked with Joe Diffie a few months back. We did a song called "Willin'" that the Band recorded. Now I've got a couple of projects I'm working with.
Songfacts: Tell me about "Ain't Got Money."
Bo: "Ain't Got Money" is really more of a ZZ Top vibe. That's really my tribute to Billy Gibbons and them, because Billy's one of my big influences on guitar. That was one of those... if you ain't got money, they ain't got time. (laughs)
Songfacts: OK, so that's not directed at anybody in particular?
Bo: Well, there might be a couple of digs to a few people, but I'm not going to say. My mama told me if you don't have nice things to say about folks, don't say nothing at all.
Songfacts: OK, let's go back to The Real Thing, "Valley of Angels"?
Bo: "Valley of Angels" was a song that I wrote many years before I recorded on The Real Thing. But then Cliff Magness came in and put that pretty kind of bridge to it. So that was a team work effort for myself and Cliff. Cliff Magness is really cool. Just a song about God, man, and you know, I'm a Christian, and love Jesus Christ, and kind of like my peaceful place is what it's about, you know.
Songfacts: So "Valley of Angels" is about your safe place, your happy place.
Bo: My happy place.
After working with RCA on his 2005 album The Real Thing, Bice moved on to an independent label: Sugar Money.Songfacts: You've been at this for a while, haven't you?
Bo: Yeah, I've got several CDs out. I released my first CD with a band called Purge in 1995-'96. We did one full album, and then we're recording another one. And I've recorded several projects after that and I have a CD out called Recipe For Flavor that you can get at bobice.com, too. And I have some songs on there that I'm going to be doing over again, rehashing them like I have some of these old ones. So I love to write, it's a big part of my life, and record. On the last album I invested in my own recording studio. I've had a studio of sorts since I was about 14 or 15. Sort of a little 4-track recorder. Now I've got a great rig, and we pull it around a little bit, so my record label's going to be releasing a Bo Bice Live album probably at the beginning of next year.
Songfacts: Can you tell me what the major difference is between working with a mainstream label or an independent label? I would imagine it's a little bit tougher with independent, you have to work harder?
Bo: It's a lot of work. But in many ways it's the same thing I was doing before I went on Idol. So it's not really more work. You dig what I'm saying?
Songfacts: I do.
Bo: I'm not working any harder than I did before I got on Idol. I think maybe a lot of people think that when you get to a certain level you should just kind of let your handlers do this, that, and the other. That doesn't mean I do everything myself. I'm smart enough to know that you're only as strong as your team. I surround myself with people that work hard, they love to work, love what we do, and take time to appreciate that we do what we love for a living. Because we're real honored to be able to do that. People pay their hard earned money for our music and to come and see us play. So I don't consider it much more stress or much more anything. Maybe that's because I'm also a bit of a control freak, too.
Songfacts: You have more control now with your independent label?
Bo: You've got more control, there's more responsibility. But it's also cool, because if I have an idea and I want to do it, that doesn't mean I have to do everything by myself. There's just different projects that have different means. I might team up with this huge label and partner up with them on a project, and then I might do something solo. But the cool thing for me is I'm not trying to wear a lot of hats. I know my limits, I know my boundaries. And right now it's nice to be able to do this, put this project together. But there's also going to come a time in a few months where I'll want to flip that switch and just turn back into writer mode. You try to do that stuff on and off, where it used to be you could record an album, and then you spent months writing, and then you put a new one together. For me, I just try to do that all the time. We just do writing on the road, and record on the road, and we do different things. So when I get home, I just spend time with my family, and it's a sanctuary, I'm able to kind of just chill out.
Songfacts: I understand that congratulations are in order?
Bo: Yes, we have a second baby on the way.
Songfacts: You guys are going to have all kinds of fun.
Bo: Oh, you'd better believe it. We've got our hands full already. That and the dogs. One dog with me, and she keeps one dog with her, and we've got this dog that guards the house out in the yard. It's all right, though. Wouldn't know what we'd do without 'em.
We spoke with Bo Bice on July 23, 2008. Learn more at bobice.com.
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