Country Weekly first sat down with then-newcomer Blake Shelton in the conference room at Warner Bros. Nashville on May 16, 2001, to interview him for the “Who’s New” profile that would run in the July 10 issue. His debut single, “Austin,” was climbing the charts and the Ada, Okla., native had both high hopes and realistic expectations after seven years of slugging it out in the Nashville trenches. Here’s an edited transcript of our talk with the tall, fresh-faced and be-mulleted young star a couple of months before the release of his self-titled first album.
Kirsti Manna and David Kent wrote “Austin.” How did it come to your attention?
The first time I heard it was six months ago. We had already finished the album, and were just basically sitting around waiting on the release date. And Debbie Zavitson from the record label called me one day and said, “You’ve got to get down here and hear this song.” And I did, and immediately it was just like … first of all, I couldn’t believe that I was going to have access to that song. Because I still think that [Tim] McGraw or another big artist would have recorded it if they had heard it. I don’t know what the situation was, but I didn’t know if I was going to be able to get the song or not at first. But I told them, “We’ll just take something off the album that we’ve already recorded and replace it with ‘Austin’ if we can do it.” So immediately we went in and recorded it so that we could have it, and once we did it we realized it should be the first single. The song, what attracted me to it is the story, I’ve never heard a story centered around an answering machine like that, and how the guy held on for so long hoping that she would call at some point. He wanted her to know that he still cared so desperately that he left it on his machine every time he left a new message, I just thought that was really strong writing. Every line just keeps you, you’re just hooked immediately into the song because you just can’t wait to hear what happens next.
I imagine things have been happening fast since it came out.
It’s crazy. It’s weird, too—I’ve been in Nashville for seven years, I moved here in June of ’94, and the whole time has been sitting around and hoping and waiting and praying, and just nothing going on whatsoever. Now all of a sudden we can’t even keep up with the thing, it’s happening so fast. Which to me, you know, bring it on. Make me as busy as you possibly can, because I’m rested up, I’ve been waiting for this forever. But the fact that it’s taking off so fast couldn’t be more perfect for me. This interview here that we’re doing, this is the stuff that I’ve been hoping for. This is the thing that I moved here for. Just to do music and be able to get it out there to the people and get to know me. That’s my dream.
You were initially signed to Giant, which was then absorbed into Warner Bros. Did that make things more difficult?
Giant Records closed on a Friday, and the next Monday my record debuted on the charts and I thought it was over. I thought, “That’s it, I’m out of here.” But Warner Bros. got excited about it, embraced me and it’s just been incredible. They’ve just taken the ball and ran with it. It’s been great. They’re really, really working hard for me.
Do you have an album title yet?
It’s just gonna be self-titled, it’s called Blake Shelton.
How about a release date?
July 31st. The single’s been out for sale for about two weeks now. It’s doing pretty good.
One of your co-writers on “All Over Me” was Earl Thomas Conley. How did you hook up with him?
Earl Thomas Conley’s my all-time country music hero. He sings with so much emotion, and his writing, I think, is incredible. And about two and a half years ago a friend of mine named Mike Pyle said, ‘How’d you like to write with Earl?’ Mike plays bass for him. I was ready to go right then, so we set up a time and I went out there to his house with Mike. I was real, real nervous, but Earl’s the kind of guy who makes you feel real comfortable. You would never know that he is the guy who had 18 No. 1 hits. If it’s over tomorrow, the fact that I got to meet Earl and write a song with him is something that I’m gonna hold high for the rest of my life. That was a big, big deal for me.
How did you get started writing songs?
My first song I wrote when I was 15. I wrote a song called “That Girl Made a Fool Out of Me.” It was about a girl who I had a crush on in high school and who, looking back on it, honestly didn’t care too much about me. I was feeling sorry for myself, so I sat down and wrote the song. I think it’s probably in the Top 10 of worst songs ever written in the history of the earth. Hands down, easily. It’s pitiful, trust me on this.
When did you first sing in public?
The first time I stepped onstage I was 8 years old. I used to sing in my bedroom all the time and my mom thought it’d be cute to get me on stage in front of some people. I guess the only thing she knew to do was enter me into a local pageant there. So I think I was the only boy with probably 50 little 7-, 8-, 9-, 10-year-old girls. She entered me into it for the talent portion of it. It was pretty embarrassing for an 8-year-old boy, who doesn’t even like girls at that age anyway, to be in that. I told her I didn’t want to do any more pageants, that wasn’t cool. So eventually I started singing on some country music shows there in my hometown, in Ada. Got onto a little local Opry show that had a show two weekends out of every month, and that’s when I met Mae Boren Axton. She had lived in Ada for a while, and they brought her down to honor her with some kind of an award, and I was part of the entertainment they did for her for that show. After the show was over I got a chance to visit with her, and she told me she thought I would have a shot at making it if I would just move to Nashville. That was all the encouragement I needed. I was still 17 then. I had to have some friends turn on my gas and electric for me, because I wasn’t even old enough to get that turned on. I guess the good thing was that I wasn’t old enough to know that that can be real nerve-wracking. When I moved to Nashville I was still 17 and still young and naive enough that I wasn’t thinking, “What if this doesn’t work out? What am I gonna do then? What am I gonna do for an education? If it don’t work, what kind of a job am I gonna get?” All I thought was, “I’m gonna move to Nashville and get a record deal and start singing.” As you know, that’s not always how it works out. It took me seven years to finally get to this point after moving here.
So what did you do after you got here?
I called Mae Axton and said, “What am I gonna do now?” She said, “Well, you can come and paint my house.” So for two weeks, my very first job in Nashville was painting Mae Boren Axton’s house. Hoyt Axton, her son, happened to be in town. On my lunch breaks I’d get on the bus with him and he’d tell me stories and talk to me about the industry and songwriting and stuff like that. Those people taking me under their wing like that, those are the kind of people that keep you here in Nashville and get you through when it gets tough here. Another thing I did was, I made tape copies for a publishing company here in town. I got fired from that job after about four months for not doing my job. I was trying to talk to all the songwriters that were in there all the time instead of making tape copies, so they fired me. Which turned out to be a good thing, because I really had to step up then and start making some things happen.
How did you get signed?
The biggest break for me since I moved to Nashville was meeting Bobby Braddock. He’s taken me under his wing, and he took me over to Sony/Tree [publishing company] here in Nashville and got me a production deal with the publishing company to cut four sides and try to get a record deal. We went around to four or five different record labels, and Giant Records said they wanted to work something out. I jumped on it, man, because at that point I was really wanting something to work out for me.
When would that have been?
July ’98. When I got the record deal I thought, “That’s it, we’ve made it.” And that’s when I learned that as far as being a singer, everybody thinks the hardest part is getting the record deal. It’s not. The hard part is once you get a record deal, because then you’ve got to step up, you’ve got to have great songs, you’ve got to hope you have a song that’s going to break through, because you don’t get a lot of shots these days. You get one or two singles, and if they don’t break through, everybody writes you off, including radio, because there’s just so much competition out there.
Whereabouts do you live now?
I live just west of Nashville here, south side of town.
Single. No kids.
Just how tall are you?
6’4″ with a mullet. When you’ve got a mullet, you’ve got to throw that in.
What do you do for fun?
I’m an outdoorsman, I love to hunt and fish and collect pocketknives. Me and my dad both share the same passion for pocketknives, so we trade ’em and stuff like that. Mainly hunting and fishing is my getaway from all this.
Do you have much time to do that lately?
Not anymore, I don’t. It’s funny, for seven years there I had time to hunt and fish all I wanted to, and now I don’t get to do any of that stuff. It’s for a good reason now.
What are your plans for the summer?
Hopefully I’m gonna get out and start playing some. I’m doing some shows throughout the country and then we’re going to be doing Fan Fair all week long, trying to meet everybody, so I encourage people to come by and say hi to me.
Do you have any particular goal in mind for yourself?
It sounds goofy, but my goal right now is, I just want a song to break through the Top 10. It’s real important for me to have a Top 10 record at some point in my career. And that’s about as long-term as it gets for me right now. I’m really, really concentrating on this single, and this current album. That’s about as far as I can see right now.
story by Chris Neal