11/28/2005 at 01:00 AM EST
Calming a woman who's in labor isn't easy, but it came naturally to Bo Bice when his wife, Caroline, gave birth to their son Aidan in September. "This is going to sound awful, but we've had so many litters of kittens with our cat Caboodles, and it really wasn't much different from that," he says. "You sit there and try to soothe your cat and tell her everything is going to be all right. That's pretty much what I did with my wife." He pauses before adding: "My approval rating just went through the floor, didn't it?"
Not likely. The popular American Idol
runner-up, 30, whose rendition of "Sweet Home Alabama" on the show had even Simon Cowell
smiling, has had quite a year. His first single, "Inside Your Heaven," debuted on the pop chart at No. 1 in July; he collaborated with Carlos Santana on the guitarist's new CD; he's about to tape a concert special that will air on the Oxygen network Dec. 11; and on Dec. 13 his debut album, The Real Thing
, will hit stores. A songwriter since age 12, Bice "is a legitimate musician," says Clive Davis, the album's producer. "This is his life's work, so it's a very natural project."
, Bice also managed to marry Caroline Fisher, 25, his longtime girlfriend; move into a new home in Nashville (while offering his old house in Alabama to a family who had lost their home in Hurricane Katrina); and change his son's diaper for the first time. "It's been pretty hectic," he says. At the moment he's taking a quick breather at his six-acre Nashville spread with his wife and new son. "Bo's the best dad," says Caroline. "He'll just sit and stare at Aidan. He loves him with all his heart." He's also a hands-on dad: "I was up at 3 the other morning with a bottle in my hand," says Bice. And that's a blessing, he adds: "That wasn't the kind of bottle I'd have in my hand five or six years ago at 3 in the morning."
In his early 20s, Bice readily admits, he was a hard partyer. In 2001 he was arrested on cocaine possession charges, and in 2003 he was charged with marijuana possession. Both charges were later dropped. "I went through treatment and did the whole court thing and weekly screenings and everything," he says. It was around that time that he met Caroline, who was a waitress at the bar next door to the Birmingham, Ala., music store where he worked. Although they were just friends at first, "she was a big part of me turning my life around," he says. "We knew we were soulmates." Bice also began attending a local church. "My perspective on life changed," he says. "There's not a morning I see a sunrise and don't give full glory to God for it."
Clean-nosed as a kid, Bice was raised by a single mom from a family of musicians, who occasionally sang at the Grand Ole Opry and managed a fashion boutique in Huntsville, Ala., to pay the bills. In the one-bedroom apartment they shared, says his mother, Nancy Downes, now 51, "we didn't have a bed, so we slept on a mattress on the floor in our living room." Bice himself never realized they were poor: "I thought we ate spaghetti every night because I liked it."
Life changed for the better after Nancy married Coca-Cola executive Earl Downes in 1986, when Bo was 9. (Bo calls Downes, 57, his dad; his mom and biological father, Elwin Bice, split when he was a toddler.) By the time Downes's job sent the family to London for a six-year stint in the late 1980s, Bice was already writing songs on his guitar, and soon he began playing gigs at pubs.
These days, even though he has performed before millions on TV, he says he most enjoys singing for an audience of one: Aidan. He'll even accept some criticism from the little guy. "If he's crying when I'm singing, I'll try to change the key and see what he says," says Bice. "Aidan's a new form of entertainment around here." And if there's ever a Baby Idol
show, watch out, says his dad: "Hopefully we'll get a guitar in his hands in a year or so."
Jennifer Wulff. Beverly Keel in Nashville