There's nothing like hitting the airwaves with a chart-topping debut single at just about the same time you're threatened with losing your record company deal.
The week Blake Shelton's hit song, "Austin," debuted on the country music charts, his label, Giant Records Nashville, closed its doors.
Thankfully, parent company Warner Bros. Nashville was paying close attention when it decided which Giant artists to inherit. With a little research, the label realized the radio buzz surrounding "Austin" and took Shelton under its wing.
"It was just one of those songs that couldn't be stopped," Shelton told POLLSTAR from the road. "I was just the lucky guy who got my hands on it. I think the power of that song is what brought me through that transition."
That wasn't the first time a little luck and a lot of talent came together to bolster the 25- year-old's career.
The Ada, Okla., native stepped onstage for the first time at age 8, performing in a children's talent show. As a teen-ager, he was chosen to sing at a tribute to Mae Boren Axton, a local who co-wrote "Heartbreak Hotel," among other hits. An impressed Axton told Shelton she would help him if he moved to Nashville after finishing high school.
At 17, he packed his bags.
"That was all the encouragement I needed," Shelton said. "That was the first person I'd ever met that was actually in the music industry and so it was a real big deal to me just to meet her and to have her tell me that. It made what I was doing seem real for a change."
Perhaps that kind of encouragement kept Shelton focused as the reality of trying to get a break in Music City set in. When he called Axton to ask what to do next, she answered, "You can come and paint my house for me."
While that job would seem unproductive in his quest for a music career, it actually triggered an encounter that further propelled Shelton's ambitions. Axton's son, singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton, was living in his tour bus parked in her driveway. His songs and stories became a big inspiration for the young talent.
Eventually, Shelton landed a job recording demos. In 1997, he was co-writing with a friend who, unbeknownst to Shelton, was playing work tapes for Bobby Braddock, the acclaimed songwriter who co-wrote country standards including "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "D-I-V- O-R-C-E" and "Time Marches On." Shelton became Braddock's first project as producer.
"I thought he had what it took to be a superstar," Braddock said. "One thing he has, and it comes through when he's singing live or in the studio, is a certain electricity and charisma. Not a lot of people have it."
Another thing Shelton has is a different outlook on the country music industry, one that is shared with Braddock. The Braddock-penned "Same Old Song" on Shelton's self-titled album is a perfect example of where the pair is coming from. It takes aim at the light, happy lyrics that have come to dominate the country charts.
December 7, 2001
Braddock said when he met Shelton, he thought the aspiring musician might just be the perfect person to sing the song. And Shelton felt that other tunes he sang would have to echo similar sentiments.
"Everything had to live up to that song or it wouldn't make it onto the album [because] I'd be contradicting myself," Shelton said. "I want to be politically incorrect because that's life, that's reality."
In this case, his record company isn't challenging Shelton's take on the sweet-as-syrup country biz.
"I think my music is pretty much G-rated compared to a lot of the stuff you hear, so I really don't think that I'm pushing the envelope," he explained. "I just don't want to be vanilla, and I think they understand it. Like with (the song) 'Old Red,' in the first couple lines of the song, the guy kills somebody. Well, 15 years ago nobody would blink twice at that. Now, all of a sudden, that's an issue. And it's just a story."
Ironically, while Shelton chooses to stray from the "everything is sunshine and flowers" angle in his songs, he seems to inspire just that. His co-manager, Debbie Zavitson, previously an A&R rep who signed him to Giant, is captivated by Shelton as an entertainer and as a person.
"His songwriting is so from the heart. His voice is just so sincere when you hear him sing and his songs are the same way," Zavitson told POLLSTAR. "And he's just an honorable, very gracious man. I can't tell you enough how his sense of honor and loyalty is missing in people today."
She added, "Here in Nashville, everybody's pulling for Blake because he's so well liked and when somebody like him is such a generally nice guy that has success, it's like, 'Yay, happy ending.'"
The path to that happy ending will including a lot of touring, even during the winter months when many acts take a break. Shelton's not about to slow the momentum that "Austin" has afforded him. In fact, the song is so popular, some audiences demand he sing it twice.
"That's fine with me," he said. "They're there because of that song and it has nothing to do with me. I've got a ways to go before people will show up just because they see my name there. Right now, I've been lucky enough to be attached to this monstrous song and if they want to hear it three times, hell, I'll do it three times. ... I just want to make them happy."
Zavitson said Shelton already has plenty of work pouring in for next near, but at this early stage, it's hard to plan a touring strategy. His team at William Morris is getting the word out that the artist is open to a variety of situations.
"He's certainly ready to hit the road and play his heart out," Zavitson said.