Nigel Lythgoe and his band of crazy-like-a-Fox-network masterminds could not have built a more all-American American Idol than Scotty McCreery if they'd sculpted one out of apple pie filling and Cracker Jacks. Seriously, the baseball-loving boy-next-door always seemed so fully sprung from a three-dimensional Norman Rockwell painting, he might as well have sang every "Idol" song while holding Fourth of July sparklers in each hand as Rockettes in Statue-of-Liberty costumes line-danced behind him.
But this is no act. Scotty really is that humble, that polite, that sweet, that wholesome. He may claim he's so "Saint Scott," but he comes pretty darn close. (And please note, I didn't say "damn close." Scotty would not approve.)
I learned firsthand that Scotty is the real deal when Yahoo! Music traveled to Nashville to tape the Season 10 "American Idol" winner's first-ever live performance with his new band for Yahoo!'s Ram Country program. (Live performance videos coming soon!) Fronting a group of veteran Nashville musicians probably about 10 years his senior, Scotty seemed totally comfortable and at ease, holding his own. And when I got to chat with him on the scene, he was wise and well-spoken beyond his mere 17 years.
It may have been his deep, deep voice that added to his mature vibe. But no, it wasn't just that. Scotty is simply a very grounded guy, and that unshakeable sense of self will undoubtedly help him as he embarks on a country career with his just-released debut album, Clear As Day. Check out Scotty's clear-minded Q&A, in which he talks about his old-school country influences, being accepted in Nashville, working with big-name country collaborators, the foolproof "Mama Crying Test" he utilizes when selecting songs, and establishing a long-term career in a Gaga-centric music world.
REALITY ROCKS: I've always thought it was interesting that for someone so young, you know so much about music from before your time. How did you get into old-school country music?
SCOTTY: It really started with my mom. My dad grew up in Maine so he wasn't listening to country music, but my mom always played me Conway Twitty and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash--she was a Conway Twitty & The Twitty Birds fan, her and her sister. They had all the records and stuff. And Elvis Presley, he was another big one on my list. While the other kids were listening to the Backstreet Boys, I was listening to Elvis! But I don't know, it just kind of happened. She'd play the music in the car and I just gravitated towards that instead of the more modern stuff. I think it gave me an appreciation of country music, now and then.
REALITY ROCKS: Did kids make fun of you for liking that sort of music?
SCOTTY: In my younger days, they did! I remember in second grade I did a project on Elvis, and they were like, "What are you doing?" But I enjoyed it. Nowadays, my friends that I hang out with, they're into the old-school country too. So it's all good now.
REALITY ROCKS: Didn't you dress up as Elvis once?
SCOTTY: Yeah, for Halloween! I got the wig, the jumpsuit, all the jewelry. I'd go up and ask for candy, and when they'd put it in my basket I'd say [deep Elvis voice], "Thank you. Thankyouverymuch." I was a little weird, but hey, you gotta have fun.
REALITY ROCKS: I can totally imagine that! Was your voice this deep back then?
SCOTTY: No, my mama says it was when I was about 12 or 13 that it started changing, and it kind of skipped that cracking phase too. I skipped all the teasing and stuff, so that was a good thing.
REALITY ROCKS: So, was it important for you to have an old-school country feel to your album?
SCOTTY: Definitely. I think on this album there's a great combination of that classical country music, but it also has that modern feel. And that's something I was talking with the producers about--we wanted to bring back some of that old-school feel. And some lyrics back too, you know. Because in the old days they sang about family and death and real life, and nowadays it's all kind of about love and stuff like that.
REALITY ROCKS: Country has really crossed over to pop. How did you strike the balance and not go too pop?
SCOTTY: I knew personally I would never go too pop, because I don't think physically it could happen! You have to stay up with the times and stuff, but for me this album was all about being me and being believable when I was singing the song, and to do that I had to have some of those old influences and that old sound. I think we have a good mixture of that sound from the current, but with the flavor of the past.
REALITY ROCKS: So what are some of the themes on this album?
SCOTTY: A big theme of this album, and I didn't realize this until about a week ago, is love--but it's not necessarily that boy/girl love that we all know. It's love of a lost one, love of your hometown, love of your family. So there's a strong love connection throughout this album, but a whole lot of different senses of love.
REALITY ROCKS: I know you are religious. How did your faith influence the album's lyrics?
SCOTTY: "Old King James," that was one they sent to me when I was actually in Houston. I remember it like it was yesterday. I was on the couch in my dressing room alone, and I listened to it...we were looking to put a Christian song on the album, a song that talked about my faith. We'd been talking about a hymn we wanted to put on it, or a cover of an old Christian song. But we just didnt have the right song yet. So they sent it to me, and I was jumping up and down because we'd found it, and I ran and got my mom in catering and said, "You gotta listen to this song!" And of course, that was one of the songs that passed the "Mama Crying Test." It really just speaks about passing down the Bible and passing down your faith and love through the generations, and through family. It really speaks a lot about my family and a lot about our beliefs and faith.
REALITY ROCKS: So what is this "Mama Crying Test"?
SCOTTY: Ah, the Mama Crying Test! A lot of people are asking me about that. Basically, we picked a lot of songs, and a lot of songs were sent our way, but there were only two that passed the test, and they were "Dirty Dishes" and "Old King James." And I could see where she was coming from with them both, because "Old King James" reminded her of her father and her family, and "Dirty Dishes" was a song that reminded her of our family. It's kind of been different--well, not kind of been, it's been way different--since February, when we moved out to Hollywood to go on "Idol." We haven't really had the chance to sit down as a family and eat dinner and talk about life and things, and I think that's kind of what was going through her head when she heard "Dirty Dishes." It was going through mine as well. So those two were the perfect songs.
REALITY ROCKS: Are those the two songs on your album that mean the most to you?
SCOTTY: The songs mean different things to me in different ways. "Watertower Town" speaks of my hometown, and that's something I love dearly. I love Garner, North Carolina, with all my heart! It's where I was born and raised, and I'm proud of it! So "Old King James" is my faith, "Dirty Dishes" is my family, "Watertower Town" is my hometown. A lot of songs mean different things to me.
REALITY ROCKS: How did you pick songs that were meaningful to you?
SCOTTY: It had to be believable. It had to relate to me. Something I could believe myself when I'm singing it, without me having to fake it up there and smile. There are a lot of things I can't sing because of my age and because of who I am as a person. So we talked to publishers and writers about what we were looking for, and after that a stream of songs came in that fit. Naturally, the right ones fell into place.
REALITY ROCKS: What exactly are the subjects you feel are inappropriate for you to sing about? [Editor's note: Scotty got his start on "Idol" singing about locking the doors and turning the lights down low!]
SCOTTY: Oh, you know, there are a lot of things in country music right now that talk about that romantic side of love, and drinking with the boys at midnight...that's just stuff that I wouldn't sing about because it's just not me, and but also, it's my age. I'm 17! I know there's restrictions and stuff, so I gotta be believable.
REALITY ROCKS: Is it important for you to be a role model for kids your age?
SCOTTY: I hope I can be. I hope I can be a positive light. I'm not gonna sit here and say I'm "Saint Scott," because by no means am I. But I want to go out and shed a positive light and do good things with my music.
REALITY ROCKS: Tell me about some of the songwriters who contributed to the album. I see a lot of major Nashville names in the credits, and that must really trip you out, to have collaborators like that on your very first album.
SCOTTY: Oh yeah, it was amazing to me to see the songwriters that were coming in. Keith Urban co-wrote one, "A Walk In The Country," and that was one of our favorites. It's a rockin' song, a fun song; we can jam out to it when we're onstage. But there were others: Rhett Akins, his son Thomas, Neil Thrasher, the list goes on. It's just amazing to me, because I'm the "new guy"! I describe myself as being the senior in high school on "Idol," top dog, and now I'm the freshman in college here in Nashville. I gotta work my way up. So to see guys like that pitching songs my way is an incredible blessing for me.
REALITY ROCKS: Did you ever have any concern that, being from the reality-TV world, the biggies in Nashville would not accept you or take you seriously as a musical artist?
SCOTTY: Yeah, that was in the back of my mind, because it's happened before. I knew I hadn't paid my dues and gone to the honky-tonks like a lot of these guys--but I mean, at this age, I wouldn't have been able to do that anyway. It's really insanely awesome to come here and see open arms. I got to sing with Tim McGraw! He was a nice guy; he said, "Scotty, this is your show. I want you to shine, not me." And then there's guys like Keith Urban pitching songs to me, and now Brad Paisley invited me on tour. It's amazing for me to see, because in the back of my mind I was thinking, "Am I going to be accepted in Nashville? Are these guys going to pick on me for being the 'Idol' kid? Are they not gonna like me because I didn't do these clubs and honky-tonks?" But so far, they've been really accepting and awesome to me.
REALITY ROCKS: And you got to play the Grand Ole Opry...
SCOTTY: Yes! A dream of mine for years now. I have the plaque that says, "Scotty McCreery Makes His Opry Debut," right in the hallway when we walk into my house. But that's just a dream every country music singer has. You step in that circle and just feel the presence of all those old legend country acts. It was quite the experience.
REALITY ROCKS: Another concern might be, you are just a teenager. Were you ever worried that these big-wigs in Nashville wouldn't take you seriously because of your age?
SCOTTY: Kind of, sort of. But I always thought that because of "Idol," and because of the songs I sang on "Idol," I could be taken seriously. I wanted to sing about real stuff and real-life experiences. I've gone through a lot at 17. A lot of people don't know that, but I've got a lot of life experiences that some people shouldn't have to go through. I know what I'm talking about. An emotion is an emotion, whether you're 70 years old or 17. Love is love, and heartbreak is heartbreak. That's the way I look at it, at least.
REALITY ROCKS: Any specific examples of tough life experiences that inspired your songs?
SCOTTY: Yeah, like on "Clear As Day." The county over next to mine has had the highest fatality rate for teenage drivers in the state, maybe the nation. It's been too many, and a lot of those guys [who died], I was friends with. It's tough for that stuff to happen. There were some experiences like that, and some other stuff, that's tough to take.
REALITY ROCKS: This is interesting, because unlike with some "Idol" contestants, your sob stories were never the focus of your persona on "Idol."
SCOTTY: Well, I don't really have that big sob story like some of them. For me it was just about me being a person. When ["Idol"] does a lot of those stories, they asked me, "What makes you different?" And I said, "What makes me different is I'm normal. I don't have any tattoos. I don't have any mug shots on the Internet. You won't dig up any dirt on me. I'm just a normal American dude."
REALITY ROCKS: Do you think that was ultimately your appeal on the show?
SCOTTY: I think somewhat. I'll never know what exactly people saw in me, but I think a lot of people could relate to me because I was just a normal cat not trying to be anything else.
REALITY ROCKS: You seemed like a frontrunner on "Idol" from the beginning. Be honest: Did you know, deep down, that you were going to win?
SCOTTY: Uh-uh! I remember--there's a video on YouTube somewhere--you can see I was scared to death and I was talking to a former contestant about it, like, "This next day could change our lives, or we could be sent packing." It was a scary process, especially this season, because you never knew who was going home; there were some eliminations that a lot of people were shocked by. You just never knew week-to-week what was going to happen. It was probably around the top five, I remember I looked at my mom--it was kind of random, I think we were about to go to dinner--and I said, "Mom, you know what? I'm kind of starting to want to win this thing." That's when I really tried to kick it in gear. I think that may have been the week I sang "Gone."
REALITY ROCKS: You still seem so humble. How do you stay a normal teen in this crazy business?
SCOTTY: It's a lot of my hometown, the friends I have, the parents and upbringing I had. Kids [in Garner], when I go home, they don't treat me any different. I've known these kids since I was 2. That's what I like: being home and being normal. I don't walk around with an "American Idol" T-shirt on; I walk around with shorts and flip-flops on, just being normal me. It's a cool thing for me to be able to go home and have that hint of normalcy that I don't have in the outside world. I'm just being me. The same Scotty that left for Hollywood is the same Scotty that came back.
REALITY ROCKS: Well, wearing an "Idol" tee probably would be a little cocky! So what is your overall favorite moment of your "Idol" experience?
SCOTTY: Oh, wow. There were so many packed into a few months. Well, winning was obviously the moment you dream of, but I don't want to say that. I'll say Tim McGraw. Singing with Tim McGraw is one of the coolest things I've ever done. I was shaking in my boots. That was one of the first country stars I'd met. And he shook my hand and greeted me like we'd been friends for 20 years.
REALITY ROCKS: So...it wasn't being mentored by Lady Gaga?
SCOTTY: [laughs] Gaga was interesting! She's an artist. She's an amazing artist, and she's unique. I think some of us were a little taken aback by it, but hey, that's what makes her Gaga!
REALITY ROCKS: Is that cross you're wearing around your neck right now the one you kissed after you met her?
SCOTTY: Yes, this is the same one, yep! [laughs]
REALITY ROCKS: What do you think Lady Gaga would think of your album?
SCOTTY: I'd hope she'd like it. She's an artist and she has an appreciation for all kinds of music, so I'm sure she'd enjoy it. Some of her songs are cool and I've listened to them on the radio and stuff. We're on the same label, so maybe I'll get to play her my album one day!
REALITY ROCKS: So, where do you see yourself, career-wise, in five, 10, 20 years' time?
SCOTTY: I want to see myself still in Nashville and making music, because it happens a lot nowadays that you're here for three years and then you're out. A flash in the pan. I don't wanna be that guy. I want to be around, making music and inspiring people with songs and doing good things with my music for years to come. That's a process and something I have to work toward; I know it's not something that's going to be handed to me. I gotta work. And I'm looking forward to working! I like a challenge. It'll be fun trying to get there.