Cool Cat in the Hat

Bluesman Michael Grimm talks about life offstage—and singing about it onstage—in his new Green Valley Ranch residency


Photo by Anthony Mair

Happy hooting and hollering dies down as the slender, laid-back fellow in ripped jeans, gray shirt, vest and trademark fedora pauses between blues tunes pulled deep from his gut.

“Hey, this for me?” he asks, leaning down to retrieve a Rum and Coke at the lip of the stage. “Thank you, brother,” he says to the provider of the libation. “Cheers.”

Dude is smoother than the drink he sips. Until he rips into another blues growler, voice dipped in moonshine: I been to Memphis, baby/I been to Kansas City, too/Never met a woman who could love me like you do/Going back to Louisiana/To that girl I left behind.

You believe—really believe—he’s Bayou-bound, so raw and real is the emotion surging from the power pipes that seduced a country on America’s Got Talent in 2010. So it’s startling when, off-stage and one-on-one, Michael Grimm’s conversation is so softly uttered it could double as an infant’s lullaby.

“I’m not an entertainer, I’m a singer,” says the 32-year-old, Season 5 winner of America’s Got Talent, mellow and amiable at the bar next to the Ovation showroom at Green Valley Ranch Resort, where he began a Saturday-night residency last month. “The thing that has always driven me to get up and sing and play are things in life, heartache. I really dig down deep when I’m singing and try to make it real, because it is.”

Call us naïve, but nothing about Grimm has us assuming anything other than an unassuming nature. Real deal here.

After being crowned competition king—topping pint-size, big-voiced child singer Jackie Evancho—Grimm’s fairy tale hasn’t arrived at the expected point in his story. Rather than scoring a permanent Strip residency a la ventriloquist/Season 2 winner Terry Fator, ensconced in his own theater at The Mirage with a $100 million contract, Grimm is far off-Strip at Green Valley Ranch, where he performed pre-TV fame, in a kind of junior showroom. Why?

“Yeah, I could be back on the Strip doing the showrooms, but I’m really more comfortable in a room like this, to be honest with you,” Grimm says.

When he says it—and how he says it—you buy it. Grimm-watchers will recall, though, that he did do a brief residency at the Flamingo spelling the on-leave Donny and Marie, and reportedly inquired at the Palms about a gig.

Meanwhile, another product of TV’s talent-show wars, America Idol Season 5 champ Taylor Hicks, commences a three-month Strip residency at Bally’s beginning June 26. Yet the differences between the two, beyond their performance venues, may have more to do with the repercussions of fame fueled by their TV triumphs—namely, the pressures of pop.

“Taylor is a good example,” Grimm says. “I watched that show and was rooting for him. But look what they made him do. He was a blues guy, very interesting and original, and the record they made went and made him into a pop singer. He’s not a pop singer. I tried [pop] a few times, and it put such a bad taste in my mouth—and I even wrote the songs. But I don’t want to go there because I don’t want to be singing that for the rest of my life.”

Remaining true to his musical roots, Grimm continues a road schedule following his opening for Stevie Nicks on tour last year—gigs are lined up in Mississippi, California and Texas, and he also performs locally at Aliante Station—and keeps recording. After three albums released pre-America’s Got Talent and another last year, he’s been working on a series of four albums of both cover tunes and originals he plans to release consecutively over two years, beginning with Gumbo, tentatively scheduled to drop in early June. “I even did all the artwork,” Grimm says. “Character drawings of the band members who played with me.”

* * *

Couples—young, middle-aged, elderly, one guy wearing a Grimm-style chapeau, some so devoted they call themselves Grimmlins—flock to dance in front of the Ovation stage. “Take off the hat!” yell a couple of giddy women who, despite his stylish headgear, prefer what Grimm himself acknowledges is an unruly mop of curly hair that only the hat can contain. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—he launches into this Randy Newman tune: Baby, take off your coat, real slow/Baby, take off your shoes/Here, I’ll take your shoes/Baby, take off your dress, yes, yes, yes/You can leave your hat on.

* * *

While capturing the America’s Got Talent title, Grimm also captivated America with his back story: Louisiana/Mississippi-reared in rundown conditions, he recalls that he could see the ground through the hole in his bedroom floor in his parents’ trailer. Once his folks split, he was sent as a 5-year-old, along with his 3-year-old sister, to live with his beloved grandparents, his grandmother in particular encouraging him musically. Flash-forward decades later to Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed their home, prompting Grimm to tell TV audiences that he hoped to spend some of the potential $1 million prize money to build them a new home. Mission accomplished: “They love it; it’s got a front and back porch that’s very big,” he says. “Got some rocking chairs on it. I bought two lots for the house to sit on. It’s got handicap features. She’s got arthritis in her knees pretty bad and can’t walk that well, so I didn’t want to get it too big. But there’s a huge kitchen, and she’s got one of those walk-in baths.”

After keeping that promise, Grimm turned to his own personal fulfillment. Viewers will recall that when Grimm belted out “When a Man Loves a Woman,” he gestured toward his girlfriend, Lucie Zolcerova. “Even before we got together, she’d sit in the bar and watch me,” Grimm recalls. “Girls all around me, but she kept after me. I knew she was the one. I got her. She loves me forever. Who can top that?”

Flash-forward again to The Ellen DeGeneres Show in September 2010, when he proposed in front of a national audience. “She said to me, ‘If you don’t propose to me in the right way, you’ll have to do it again,’” he says. “So I thought that was a good way to do it.” Under Hawaiian skies, the pair got hitched in June.

* * *

Humility pours through his pores. You feel the authenticity—the truth between singer and song—when Michael Grimm takes on Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Simple Man” to the happy hoots and hollers of Grimmlins crowding below the stage: Forget your lust for the rich man’s gold/All that you need is in your soul.

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