Like a lot of people, I didn't grow up in the kind of happy family featured in TV sitcoms. My family started falling apart when I was just a little kid, and in many ways it never really came back together. When I was young, I learned a lot of things the hard way. For one thing, I learned that alcohol and family are a horrible and explosive combination. And as I grew up in the middle of chaos and bad behavior, I also learned that nothing is guaranteed—not even a normal childhood. Winning the American Idol title and taking home that dream record deal with Clive Davis and J Records would be the closest thing to a guarantee this boy from Birmingham, Alabama, would ever get. But first I had to be judged, and not just by Randy, Paula, and Simon. I had to be judged by America. In truth, I'd known my way around judges from a very early age. Way before getting on Idol, I'd been judged plenty— by family, by teachers, by myself, and even by an actual judge or two. The first time was when I was maybe five or six years old. I found myself in a hot Birmingham courtroom facing a judge whose job it was to decide whether I'd be better off living with my mom or my dad. For a few years, I'd been bouncing around with my mom, who was bouncing all over the place herself—in many ways. I still remember how, right in front of everyone, the judge asked me in a thick Alabama accent, "So, son, does your mother drink?" What could I say? For the record, here's what I did say: "Yes, sir, she sure does."
Suddenly, the whole courtroom lit up in laughter. All those grown-ups looking at me just about died. Now, in retrospect, I know it really wasn't all that inspired a punch line. I guess it was funny because it was true. And so it was that I gave up the goods on my mother and a shameless new entertainer was born. Anyway, having been judged so much along the way, as a kid and then later as a never-give-up road warrior trying to catch a break, I knew that in the end you can't really sing to a whole country—that's just not how it works. And unless you happen to be Ray Charles, nobody has a voice that can force tens of millions to believe in you. That's not a trick anyone can play—least of all someone like me, a gray-haired bar singer from Birmingham. To sing to the whole world, you've really got to do it one person at a time—at least, that's how it feels for me. That's what a lost decade spent playing lousy gigs and tough rooms has taught me. Singing from your soul isn't about how many notes you can hit or how long you can hold them. It's all about intimacy and honesty. It's about sharing your story in a song—whether it happens to be a song you wrote or one you decided to make your own. The only job I ever really wanted comes down to looking somebody in the eyes and telling them the truth—telling them my truth. Music has given me almost everything that's good in my life. Mother music, I call it. When something gives you so much, you damn well better give back everything you can in return. If you're going to dare to pick up that microphone, you better have something to say, something to share.
So I guess that's what I did the night of the finale—tried to share. Later, after it was over, I remember thinking—with disbelief—that for about forty-five minutes there I was maybe the biggest star in the world. As Ryan would eventually announce, 63.4 million votes were cast for me that night—more than had been cast for the president of the United States only a year earlier. But that was later.
As I walked onto the Kodak stage that night with a heart full of soul and took my place in the spotlight, it wasn't nerves I was feeling, but something else entirely. In truth, I felt right at home—a man in the right place at the right time. What was once a bubble had somehow become home—and really, home was what I'd been looking for all along.