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Backstage at the Opry With Scotty McCreery & Lauren Alaina

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In country music, it is possible to have a bigger night than winning American Idol. (Or at least a comparable one.) That would be making your Grand Ole Opry debut, which season 10 winner Scotty McCreery and runner-up Lauren Alaina both did Friday night, facing one more milestone together using the buddy system.

I talked with them backstage after their performances, and while their hair wasn't quite standing on end, you could practically sense electricity still shooting from their pores. There is normally a distinct difference between how nervous Scotty and Lauren do or don't get before singing live. On this historic night, though, the two of them were of one anxious accord.

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"Oh, I get nervous before every performance, and this was no exception—if not double-nervous," McCreery told me—even though, from his stage demeanor, you would have thought he was the calmest, most implacable guy in the South or the western hemisphere. "Once I get on stage, the nerves go away," he explained, "but before I go on stage, that's when everything's hitting me and I'm shaking. I'm picturing the Rocky theme song in the back of my head, trying to get ready and pumped up for the performance."

And, of course, Stallone wasn't the only mental image he had in mind making his way from the wings to center stage at Nashville's Opry House. 

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"I was picturing Hank Williams sitting there playing in the circle," he said—referring to the circle of wood that was removed from the old Ryman Auditorium and placed in the center of the current Opry House stage (and refurbished after last year's flood). "I was thinking of all the guys I grew up listening to playing there. Right when I started singing, if you look, I started cheesin'"—that is, breaking into an unyielding grin—"because I thought, am I really doing this?"

Lauren's case of Opry nerves, however, was altogether uncharacteristic. "I never get nervous before I sing," she told the crowd, "and my legs are shaking!...It'll take me an hour to calm down from this one. I've wanted to be here on this stage since I was about as tall as my heels!"

Backstage, unwinding in the Opry manager's office, she emphasized that she was not exaggerating. "I was scared to death. And I do not get nervous," she told me. "That's always been something that I've been able to brag about."

Not ever on Idol?

"I mean, yes, on results nights," she clarified. "But show nights, I was always fine. But I was about to have a stroke out there tonight. You would have thought someone was telling me they were going to kill me—that's how scared I was. Has anyone ever puked on that stage?" That historic first was narrowly avoided. 

It's been a huge week for the dynamic duo, since they attended the CMT Awards on Wednesday night and both went into the studio—separately—on Thursday to begin recording their respective debut albums.

McCreery was in the studio Thursday with producer Mark Bright, and the assembled band laid down five backing tracks, though Scotty won't be adding his vocals to them till later. As is usual with Idol winners' albums, he expects to cut a lot of the vocals flying in and out from gigs on the summer Idol tour, which starts the first week of July, though he's hoping to accomplish as much as possible before then. 

Of course they're brand new songs, not the kind of familiar covers heard on the show, that he's recording. But he wasn't willing to reveal any song titles. "After the 'Out of Summertime' leak, they're being really strict on me about that," McCreery said—referring to a possible second single that leaked on the web less than a week ago, then was quickly squelched by all the power the Universal legal team could muster.

Alaina wouldn't even reveal which producer she was working with Thursday, since she expects to be collaborating with several on her album and the lineup is far from complete. But she and whoever she's working with got four basic tracks recorded Thursday, and among the songwriters whose work she's cutting is... Carrie Underwood. One that Carrie just happened to be carrying in her back pocket? "She ran out of space on her album [for that song] is what they told me!" 

There is some sort of history in how Scotty became possibly the first person ever to become a major country star while only having visited Nashville once (and never for professional purposes). This week marks only the second time he's ever been to Music City. "The first time I came, I was re-roofing houses with my church, so I wasn't even doing the Music Row kind of thing."

Lauren, however, had been to Nashville a lot before, spending time in the bars on Lower Broadway. Not just as a teenager—which, at 16, she decidedly still is—but even as a pre-teen. Don't panic and call the Tennessee liquor board about this, though.

"When I was 12, 13, 14, all the way until I tried out for Idol," she told me, "I would come down here during the daytime, because kids can get into the bars on {Lower Broad) until 6:00. I would go in and walk up to the bands and say "Can I sing?" and they'd let me. They started noticing who I was. But I'm wondering if, now, they know it was me, because I would introduce myself as Lauren Suddeth. Suddeth is my last name, but no one could pronounce it, so when I tried out for Idol, they recommended that I switch it to Alaina, my middle name. I performed at Legends a lot, and Tootsie's, and the Stage. So I just wonder if all those people who let me sing on their stages know that it's me. I would love to go back in there and tell them: thank you for letting me do that."

Coming to Nashville for CMA Festival week and all these attendant activities, they weren't altogether sure they'd get a completely warm reception.

Said Scotty, "The one thing I worried about, coming to this, was, how would Nashville accept me and Lauren, the Idol kids, the youngsters who didn't play the honky tonks growing up? But so far they've welcomed us with open arms." He knows his work isn't done, acceptance-wise. "I put in a lot of hard work in the last couple months, but I still have to pay my dues and still have to get out to Nashville and prove myself."   

And they have to prove that they can make it on their own and not tag-teaming as the homecoming king and queen of both country music and American Idol.

"We're still kind of working off of and getting away from the finale of the show," said McCreery. "It was a country finale, so it was totally fitting that we come here to Nashville for Fan Fest together. But definitely, after this, it's time for both of us to go... not our separate ways, but go and establish ourselves as separate artists, and not the Idol kids."

If you read comment boards, you might think that two-thirds of America wants Scott and Lauren to be a couple and one-third doesn't, but that everybody believes they secretly are. Doesn't everyone always assume that of any homecoming royal couple? But they couldn't be more dismissive of that rumor (or hope, or fear, as the case may be).

"No, we're not," he affirmed. "We're more like the brother/sister kind of relationship where we're just really good friends and get along really well. But as far as the 'relationship' side of things, that's definitely a no."

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The Opry debut was the climax of their week making joint appearances in Nashville, and they each had their separate reasons for picking the songs they chose to sing there—besides, of course, their debut singles.

For McCreery, it was George Strait's "Check Yes or No," as seen by tens of millions on TV not so very many weeks ago. "I sang it for the finale," he said, "but also, I'm singing at a historical place, and George is the king of country music, so it seemed like a good choice."

Alaina, meanwhile, chose a song she hadn't sung on TV, "Blue," which first established LeAnn Rimes as a Patsy Cline wanna-be star. Her beautiful version was a risky choice, given its vocal demands and that Lauren has been feeling a little under the weather.

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"I picked it because LeAnn started out as a young girl, so I think that we have kind of a connection through that. And that song sounds traditional [even though it's contemporary]... and I love to yodel! So what better place to do it than on that beautiful stage... Oh, I can't stop smiling!"

Or almost weeping. For the most part, she kept the tears under better wraps at the Opry than her family did.

"My daddy played the banjo growing up and was really good," she said, "and he always dreamed of playing on this stage. And he told me since I was a little girl that he wanted me to be on it. We would always talk about it and never thought it would really happen. And here I am, 16, and I walked off stage, and my daddy was crying, and I lost it! I've been living my dream for three months, but this is different. It's all my daddy talked about my whole life."

The age 16 is significant, because she more or less prophesied it.

"We have a video of me when I was 12 years old, a news story that someone did, where I said 'By the time I'm 16, I want to sing at the Opry.'" Why, of all ages, did she pick 16, back then? "It seemed like a million miles down the road back then!" she laughed. "It flew by so fast." She and Scotty both better get used to that sensation—but at least they're smart enough to stop and smell the Opry roses.

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(Right: Lauren meets surprise Opry guest Josh Turner for the first time, backstage.)

For more updates, be sure to follow Chris Willman on Twitter.

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