Scotty McCreery has a dual major. For the first part of the week, he's on the campus of North Carolina State in Raleigh majoring in communications, and then the second half, he's learning how to be a bona fide country star playing to crowds on the Weekend Road Trip Tour.
The 19-year-old singer got to this point by winning the 10th season of "American Idol" with a boyish face and a baritone that left judges and viewers with their jaws dropped open.
His prior experience had been singing with a touring choir and doing some talent shows. Since then, he has been anything but an "Idol" bust. He hit the charts in the spring of 2011 with his first single, "I Love You This Big," and his album, "Clear as Day," became the first debut by a country artist to top the Billboard chart. (Carrie Underwood has actually sold almost twice that much the first week but was second to Madonna.) His debut produced two more modest country singles, "The Trouble With Girls" and "Water Tower Town."
After doing the American Idols Live tour in 2011, he got some heavier touring experience last year opening for Brad Paisley and The Band Perry, and he went the tried-and-true holiday route with "Christmas With Scotty McCreery." Now, during the buildup to his second proper studio album, he's out on his first headlining tour. Last week, he called us from the road, flashing that unmistakable voice.
So, going to school half the week and touring half ... it sounds like it could be a difficult way to live.
I'm enjoying it. It's actually pretty fun. The touring thing is actually the same as a lot of the big artists. I was on the Paisley tour, January through October last year, and we only did Thursday through Sundays as well. So, now, Monday through Wednesday, instead of just chilling, I'm going to college. And I'm loving it. Obviously I think every other college student would say they love the college life, hate the college work, but you can't have one without the other, so we're just going with the flow.
So you do your homework on the bus?
Pretty much. When I hang up from this interview, I have to email a professor real quick and try to get some stuff straightened out. But, yeah, instead of playing Xbox before a show, I might have to type up a paper or do some Spanish, you know.
So, how are you treated on the campus by the other students?
Pretty normal, I'd say. The first couple weeks they were probably a little weirded out by it, but once they see I'm just there to get an education like them and I'm not walking around like I'm big man on campus, I'm just walking around in my sweatpants like any other guy out there. ... So far, it's been pretty tame and pretty nice, actually.
Each week on "Idol" you had to do a lot of preparation. How does that compare to pulling off a whole show?
It's totally different, man. The preparation for "Idol" was tough. We're learning brand-new songs each week and having to perfect them, and singing it for millions of people one night. So there's pressure there, but I'd say the pressure is a little more to put together the 22 songs in our set, and have the blocking right and have the lyrics right, and make sure it's going to come off as great as it can to the people that are out there watching. So, there's a lot that goes into a live show that doesn't go into an "Idol" show.
Brad Paisley is clearly a pro. What did you learn from touring with him?
I like to think that I learned a lot from him. I went out there every night with a ball cap and a hoodie on and just kind of watched him from the stands with all the fans out there. I learned a lot from watching him entertain but also the way he treated his crew backstage and the way he ran his tour. It was a very class act, and that's what I'm looking to do out here with my first headlining tour. I don't want to come off I'm like the big guy here, everyone answers to me. I want it to be like everybody's a big family out here, if we're going to be spending all this time on the road together. So far we're doing that.
There's been a long debate about whether "American Idol" is like a shortcut to stardom or a hard road to it. What's your viewpoint on it?
Yeah, I'd invite anybody to go do what I did for months and see if they could survive. There were times I didn't think I was going to make it, and I was talking to the family about buying a plane ticket home. It was tough, it was grueling, seven days a week, 24 hours in the day. If anyone wants to say it's a shortcut, I invite them to go out there and try it themselves and see how they come out.
I can see where that would be a comment they'd use back in the day, where there's pretty much only a traditional way to get into Nashville or get in the recording industry, but in today's age, there's Justin Bieber getting found by YouTube or social media, there's so many ways to break into it now, and it's still such a rare chance, but there's a lot more ways than the traditional way.
Do you sense that the established artists respect you, even though you didn't go through that Nashville route?
Yeah, I'd say most of them, especially in the country genre. I'd say all of them get it. Obviously there's a few who feel like what you were saying and only think the traditional way is the way to go. I would say that's just naive to think that. The best of the best, Keith Urban's out there and he's been in the industry forever now, and he did "The Voice" in Australia and he's doing "American Idol" now. And Carrie Underwood, she's the best of the best. Blake Shelton is on "The Voice." There's all these people in the country industry embracing these shows and the new ways to get into country music.
Did you always know that country was the route for you?
Oh yeah. I grew up with my mama, who was from Eastern Carolina, and that's all we listened to. Obviously, the pop and stuff, that's nationwide, but country music had a stronghold and a strong route throughout where I was growing up. There was really no question to me that country was what I loved. Obviously, you never really expect to get in the industry, it's such a rare thing, but I've been blessed, and hopefully I hold the country flag well.
What can we expect from the next record?
We're in the process of making it right now, and it's the sophomore album to "Clear as Day," it's not a holiday record. We're debuting songs out on the road right now and seeing how the crowd reacts. We've got about, I think, seven songs are cut right now. None are guaranteed to make the record. We're getting fan's reactions and that's kind of a cool gauge. I'm enjoying it. I think we're finding a lot better songs than on "Clear as Day." I love "Clear as Day" and I'm proud of it, it's me, but it was pretty rushed, and I think this one we'll have a lot more time to be creative with and really put my own stamp on it.
So you'll have more creative control?
Yeah, a whole lot more. And I'm actually getting a chance to write some, too. The whole album won't just be my writings, but the best songs we're finding are going to make it, whether that's me writing it or Joe Schmo out there, it depends. I'm not going to be partial to my stuff, but we're definitely going to give it a shot and try to write as much as we can and put stuff on there so people can see my style as well.
So, when you played these clubs now, you can't even drink, right?
No, no drinking. No gambling in the casinos. But I'm not there to do that. I'm just there to put on a show, so it's all right for me.
Scott Mervis: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2576.