Among Warner Brothers/Reprise country star Blake Shelton’s favorite memories of growing up in Oklahoma is something his grandmother used to say, after young Blake first began playing music.
“She used to call me her little Grand Ole Opry,” Shelton said in a phone conversation in early November, a few days before the CMA Awards.
Grandma’s nickname for Blake became reality on October 23, when Shelton’s buddy Trace Adkins officially inducted Shelton as the Opry’s newest member.
It was a towering achievement for the tall Oklahoman, one of country’s most versatile stars and gifted vocalists, and the 2010 CMA Male Vocalist of the Year.
Very few artists in any genre would have the ability to pull off such a huge variety of hits, from Blake’s fun-loving “Hillbilly Bone” and “Some Beach” to thoughtful ballads, such as his most requested “Ol’ Red” to his 2001 chart debut “Austin.”
Radio listeners and programmers knew right away that they had something special when they first heard “Austin” in the spring of 2001. The single quickly rocketed to No. 1 on the Billboard charts, a very rare achievement for a debut single and an honor that even George Strait, Kenny Chesney, and Garth Brooks did not accomplish.
“I’m just fascinated by country music in general,” Shelton says, talking about the huge variety in his singles and albums. “I love the traditional country, I also love the hits through the 1980s which are probably my favorites – artists like Ronnie Milsap and Earl Thomas Conley who were kind of pushing the envelope.”
Blake continued: “I think that’s what I love about the genre of country music as a whole, is how it progresses over the years. That’s why it’s stayed popular.
“Country changes, and it changes for the youth. It goes back to what I was just saying, I guess I’m probably influenced by all of those eras. Because I pull from these influences like anybody would, I still don’t really have a direction. I’ve kind of been all over the map because that’s where my head is musically,” Shelton says.
This ability to stay unpredictable has always kept Blake’s music and style fresh and exciting to fans of all ages. Young fans especially adore the sense of humor that Shelton showcases on a very new technology – Twitter.
“Twitter’s a ball for me and my fans,” says Blake, who admits that early on he was reluctant to try Twitter and did it mainly because folks at his label insisted he use Twitter.
“Now I’m having more fun doing Twitter than anything, for me it’s just another stage,” he says. “I love to entertain and push people’s buttons, no matter if I’m pushing the envelope. The things I wrote on Twitter were never a surprise to my fan club, to my hard-core following.”
But some at the label grew nervous at some of Blake’s comical tweets – “next thing you know, I’m talking about pissing my pants,” he says, chuckling – and for about a 3-month period Shelton stopped going on Twitter altogether and took it off his phone.
“But it was so funny that when the Academy of Country Music Awards came up, the label and management said, `Do you think maybe you could start tweeting again?’ I said sure, and now if I’m sitting on a bus or on my phone I’m on Twitter and I think it’s terrific.”
This ability to smile at life – even in tough times such as these – comes in part from Shelton’s Oklahoma background. The 1930s humorist Will Rogers was an Oklahoman, as was another of country’s most humorous and brilliant 1960s talents, Roger Miller. Shelton is proud to continue their legacy, both with his art and his humor.
“People in Oklahoma, they’re just entertainers,” Blake says. “I don’t care if it’s the guy loading my truck at the feed store, people are just funny there. They don’t themselves that seriously at all. To stand out in Oklahoma, you have to be more over-the-top. I love what I do. I get to do what nobody gets to do. The worst artists are people that take themselves too seriously.”
He grew up in Ada, a town of about 16,000 people in southeast Oklahoma whose surrounding towns have classic country names like Happyland and Homer.
“Man, growing up in Ada was pretty low-key. I had a pretty sheltered childhood,” Shelton says. “It’s a great place to grow up. I had a situation with my family that we all laugh and have fun, everyone in my family is an entertainer in their own way. It just so happened I was also in country music big-time.”
This fascination went beyond the music, right into the business of the music. Who wrote the songs he loved? He noticed, for instance, that Paul Overstreet wrote a Randy Travis song, but Paul also had his own solo album.
“I started putting together the community of Nashville in the back of my mind,” he said. “I was kind of obsessed.”
That obsession came right to Ada one day, when “Heartbreak Hotel” songwriter Mae Boren Axton returned to her hometown of Ada to receive the Key to the City. Blake was 17 then, and was an entertainer at that event. Afterwards, Shelton spoke to Axton and a career that eventually led to the Grand Ole Opry was born.
“Mae told me that if I would move to Nashville, she didn’t think I was ready yet but she would introduce me to some key people that would help put me in the right circles,” Blake says. “For whatever reason, that’s what she got off on – networking – and I remember everybody on Music Row calling her Mama Mae.”
The teen-aged Shelton came to Nashville and stayed at Axton’s home for awhile. “That gave me that window of opportunity, and another thing Mae did within the first couple of weeks was that Hoyt Axton handed me what is still my signature song, ‘Ol’ Red.’ ”
Hoyt Axton (1938-99) charted 14 country singles as an artist, but saw his greatest success as a songwriter. He wrote Three Dog Night’s “Joy To The World,” Billboard’s biggest pop hit of 1971. It’s the one that begins, “Jeremiah was a bullfrog . . . ” Ironically, Hoyt didn’t write “Ol’ Red” – Don Goodman, Don Goodman, and Mark Sherrill did – but he was the first to play it for Blake Shelton.
Another classic example of Blake’s career creativity has been his release this year of a pair of hugely successful SIX PAKs, miniature albums with 6 songs apiece at a reduced price. The idea first came from Blake’s producer, Scott Hendricks, and enthusiastically endorsed by WB Nashville’s dynamic new President/CEO John Esposito.
Esposito, who came to Nashville in September 2009, and Shelton have become fast friends.
“Besides my best friend growing up in high school, I’ve never met anybody I’m as close a buddy with as John Esposito,” Shelton says. “We were at a club near the Opryland Hotel, and John was literally playing air guitar, and then the guy got up and sang Bruce Springsteen’s ‘I’m On Fire” with the karaoke machine.”
That kind of passion and excitement is felt by many artists and fans, but all too often not shared by many of the suits and accountants who run many of today’s cash-strapped labels. So for Blake, the arrival of John Esposito was not just a breath of fresh air creatively, but helped kick-start his career into even higher places commercially.
“When it comes to music with John, there is no filter,” Shelton says. “It’s amazing in a year, what he’s done with my career. He had to be the one to say, `We’ll do a SIX PAK. You wanna do a live DVD? We’ll do that.’ He was willing to do it and supported it 100 percent.”
Blake feels right at home with Esposito, which doesn’t always happen with artists and label heads. “I want to surround myself with people that like to party, and like to sing karaoke,” Shelton says. “Someone who’s not afraid to make an ass of theirself. It sucks when you walk into a label and it’s a bunch of suits who are not in tune with your music.”
The creative and biz pairing of Shelton and Esposito has rapidly become one of the few Dream Teams along today’s rapidly changing Music Row.
It has been indeed been a year to remember for Blake Shelton and his fans. As they know, he got engaged to another country superstar, Miranda Lambert, this year. And musically, the Grand Ole Opry induction, the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year prize, Lambert’s triumphant night as well at the CMAs, the SIX PAKs, and a Greatest Hits package that hit stores in early November have all made for an unforgettable 2010.
“I went from a guy who was just kind of a country music stepchild to where I’m sitting today,” he said the week before the CMAs. “I’m up for Male Vocalist of the Year, and I’ve been trying to beg people for CMA tickets the last 10 years and had a lousy seat. It’s clear to see what John Esposito did. My Greatest Hits album comes out next year, so I’ve had three albums in one year.”
So on all fronts, 2010 has been the year that Blake Shelton and his fans have dreamed of ever since he first started singing, writing, and playing back home in Ada.
By Phil Sweetland