The 10th 'Idol' winner celebrates his birthday with a debut album ... and homework
By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music
What do you do after you win "American Idol," sign a major-label record deal, play the starring role in a nationwide tour and become a household name, all in a matter of a few months? If you're Scotty McCreery, you return to high school in Garner, N.C., to finish your senior year.
Although he knows the commitments of his new music career will mean he probably gets to attend less than half of the scheduled school days, McCreery is clinging to every last bit of normalcy he can, and that includes staying down-to-earth and humble, despite his newfound fame. That's not always easy these days when young girls sometimes burst into tears of excitement at the mere sight of him. At a recent show in Manila, Philippines, McCreery says he and his fellow "Idol" finalists were treated "like the Beatles." And more than 38 million people tuned in to the "Idol" finale in May to watch him win Season 10, becoming the show's youngest-ever male winner.
"For me, it's all about not forgetting where you came from," McCreery says in an interview after school one day last week, just one day after accepting an onstage invitation from Brad Paisley to tour together next year.
"I remember bagging groceries," McCreery says, referring to his pre-"Idol" job, "but this is what I've dreamed of. It's a new life."
But being back home in Garner, at least for a little while, "keeps you grounded," McCreery says.
It also helped to have had his mother with him throughout the "Idol" shooting schedule and during this summer's nationwide tour with his fellow top 11 "Idol" contestants.
"I've had my mom on the road with me a lot," he says, "and if my head ever got big, she'd slap me out of it real quick." Away from home, his mother, a certified teacher, handles the home-schooling assignments, and McCreery says, "I can guarantee she ain't cutting me no slack."
McCreery admits he worried that in the wake of his "Idol" win, returning to school this year would be "a zoo," but he's been pleased to find that, at least locally, he's treated the same way as he was before he became a reality TV star.
"It's been like I never left," he says. "I've grown up with these kids that are in my class since I was 2 years old ... and they don't treat me any different. It's all been very, very great."
Those friends will help him celebrate two major milestones in the same week. On Oct. 4, he's releasing his debut album, "Clear as Day," which is expected to be a strong seller. On Oct. 9, he'll turn 18. And while the latter means he doesn't have to have an adult family member on the road with him anymore, he still plans to.
"It's a huge change for me to go from being around people I've known my whole life to being around totally different people and strangers," he says, "so just having somebody there to talk to is great, whether it's my mom, or a friend, or my dad, or my [older] sister; I'll always have somebody with me."
For his debut album, McCreery had some of Nashville's A-list songwriters lining up to try landing their tunes on the project, so he had his pick of quality songs. The 12 he chose are all age-appropriate songs he could directly relate to his own life.
He's flattered by the way Nashville's elite made their songs available to him.
"Those guys have written hits for the biggest country music artists out there, and I'm the new guy in country music, [so] for me to be getting those songs from those people was incredible," he says.
"We picked the songs that were related to me, and songs we didn't really have to fake," says McCreery, who began playing guitar at age 10, and has been singing in school choirs since elementary school.
Among his best picks -- and the album's only cover song -- is one first recorded by the band that propelled Keith Urban to U.S. stardom, the Ranch. That band's 1997 single, "Walkin' the Country," is reinterpreted by McCreery as "Walk in the Country," and he says, "That was a fun one to record."
The album's debut single and McCreery's "Idol" coronation song, "I Love You This Big," peaked at No. 15 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart. The follow-up, "The Trouble With Girls," is currently in the top 40 and still ascending the chart.
Despite being new to the recording process, McCreery says he's satisfied by the amount of input he was able to give about the direction of the album.
"I was the guy that made decisions on stuff and songs," he says. "I definitely listened to other people's opinions, though, because I'm the new guy, and it wasn't one year ago that I was bagging groceries. I've got a lot to learn. But if it came down to something I felt in my gut, or that I knew was right, I definitely had the final say.
"What you hear on the album is me," he adds, "no faking it. No outside influences."
In addition to his deep voice, which drew frequent comparisons to Josh Turner on "Idol," one of the things about McCreery that helped him draw in fans on the show was his overt Christian faith, which he made no bones about on the air. And while that might have put added stress on other young stars to live up to fans' expectation of the artist as a clean-cut choirboy, McCreery doesn't feel that way.
"I don't look at it as pressure or anything; I just look at it as being me," he says. His faith, he adds, is "a huge part of my life, and it's helped me get through 'Idol.'"
He calls the show both the most fun part of his life so far, but also, "the most stressful and the most pressure I'd ever been put [under]. I mean, it's tough getting up there in front of 25 million people every night and putting yourself on the line," he says. "It was great to have my faith ... to lean on."
Meanwhile, he's keeping his hopes for the album in check in his characteristically humble fashion.
"I have no frame of reference," he says, "so I'm not putting any expectations on it. I'm just letting people know about it and that we had a great time with it and put a lot of work into it, and we'll see."
With a release week full of major media appearances, including "The Tonight Show With Jay Leno," "The Ellen DeGeneres Show," "Today" and "Live! With Regis & Kelly," McCreery says, "It's going to be nerve-wracking, but a lot of fun."
Veteran entertainment journalist Phyllis Stark has covered music and the music industry for two decades. Her work has appeared in numerous publications and sites, including Radio-Info.com, where she authors the newsletter Stark Country. She previously was Nashville bureau chief at Billboard magazine.
Scotty - You know The Lord Jesus Christ is with you every step of THE WAY so represent HIM well. We who voted for you did so because of your gentle, humble demeanor. It probably blew away many that you won (especially the guy who didn't want you in his group in the beginning) but God gives grace to the humble. Walk with Him prayerfully and let The Holy Spirit guide you every single day, OK? Much Love from the DC area! PK
(Refuge Church, P.O. Box 9 Olney, MD 20830)