GARNER — When the "American Idols Live!" concert tour came to an end a week ago, Scotty McCreery caught a red-eye flight from Los Angeles to his hometown. Within hours, the headlining singer who had performed for cheering throngs all summer was just another senior in a Garner High School classroom, studying psychology and getting ready for the homecoming football game.
It's the kind of night-and-day contrast Scotty has gotten used to since being named the 10th "American Idol" during the May finale of TV's top-ranked show.
Sure, there are all the talk-show appearances, the magazine photo shoots, the Nashville recording sessions. But on the rare times when he's home, Scotty wants to have a typical senior-year experience.
"I try to live life as normal as possible around here," Scotty said last week while hanging out after school in the living room of the home in which he grew up.
With his first album, "Clear As Day," to be released Tuesday, Scotty won't have a "normal" time this week. He'll be all over TV, from "Today" to Regis, Leno to Ellen. Then there's the documentary about his life in Garner that will premiere Monday on the GAC cable channel. And, of course, the album release/birthday bash concert set for Saturday at Raleigh's Walnut Creek amphitheatre.
Scotty's mom, Judy, said she and her husband, Mike, wanted to pack in as many promotional appearances as possible for the album into a short window. That way , Scotty can get back into class sooner at Garner High.
He's not able to be in school every day, of course. Scotty missed most of the start of the school year as the "Idol" tour wound down, and he'll be out some next semester when he hits the road with country music star Brad Paisley.
Still, this is new territory for "Idol," which has never had a previous winner return to high school. Most past winners - such as Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and North Carolina's Fantasia Barrino - were older than Scotty, who was 17 when he won. Plus, the show employs tutors to help contestants keep up with school work.
Scotty received tutoring all last spring while on the show. In fact, he lacked only a senior English class to be able to receive a diploma.
When Scotty first broached going back to Garner High for at least part of his senior year, "Idol" producers and many others didn't think that was an option. The hometown boy who had attracted more than 30,000 people to a concert in Garner last May would not be able to walk the halls in peace, the "Idol" management thought.
"They said it's impossible - there's no way you can go back to school," Scotty remembered. "I said, 'Look, y'all don't know my hometown."
Psychology and chorus
Judy McCreery recalled her son was nervous when she went with him to campus on his first day back.
"He was saying, 'I really want this to work, Mom,' " she said. "I felt like I was taking him to kindergarten."
That day, the school had extra security officers accompanying Scotty. By his second day, some of those safety measures had been lifted. And by week's end, Scotty was making his way around the school unbothered.
"He's just one of the guys, one of the kids," said Garner High Principal Drew Cook. "People let him be Scotty."
Added Tori Yost, 16, who is in psychology class with Scotty: "He doesn't make a big deal. He just sort of comes in and leaves when we leave."
In addition to psychology, he's taking just two other classes now - a physical education class and, of course, chorus, with Meredith Clayton, the teacher he famously gave a car on the "Idol" finale.
Next semester, Scotty will take that needed English class. He also plans to participate in choral competitions - rival schools likely aren't looking forward to squaring off against the chorus with the "American Idol."
And Scotty hopes to pursue his other love besides music - baseball - come spring. He missed last year's season because of the TV show. Scotty already has confirmed he is eligible to play, though Garner Coach Derik Goffena told him he'll have to work to earn his spot.
"Coach told me he's not going to play me unless I'm in shape."
Christmas in September
Though the return to school has been fairly seamless, there are big differences in Scotty's life now. Going to Bojangles' for lunch usually draws attention these days. During a recent high school football game, so many people lined up to get his autograph that Scotty said he had to ask the school resource officer for help.
When his PE class went to a Raleigh bowling alley, students from another school recognized Scotty. At the following week's bowling outing, twice the number of students from the other school showed up.
Alas, Scotty wasn't there that day. But he heard some of the female students from the other school said, "Dadgummit, we got all dressed up for nothing."
On the home front, the McCreerys recently had to put up Christmas decorations and cook a turkey, because Scotty will be featured in People magazine's holiday issue this year. Judy McCreery joked that although she certainly knows how to prepare a turkey, the People stylists ended up taking a blowtorch to the bird to give it just the right look for the magazine.
The family has to pay extra attention to security issues, such as always keeping doors locked. They try to avoid being a disruption at places such as church.
The youth group at First Baptist Church in Garner was standing and singing last Wednesday when Scotty - clad in typical teen attire of flip-flops, N.C. State shorts and Boston Red Sox T-shirt - quietly slipped in the door. He joined in the song from the audience, not the stage. After a prayer, he took his spot in a small-group discussion.
Katie Godfrey, 17, sat next to the cross-legged Scotty on the floor and said she didn't feel awkward or tongue-tied around the celebrity.
"I'm used to him always being here," Katie said. "He's the same Scotty, and I'm the same Katie."
Mac Johnson, 21, who leads the youth group, said the teens pray for Scotty when he is away. And when he's back in town? "You don't make a big deal about it," Johnson said.
Scotty hopes his faith and his small-town values will come through on "Clear As Day." He and his mother love previewing some of the songs, with Scotty noting two in particular pass the "Mama crying" test - "Dirty Dishes," about a mother thanking God for a house full of bustling kids, and "That Old King James," about the comfort offered by a family Bible.
Judy notes that she enjoyed helping select some of the album's 12 songs. "If it makes you cry or makes you dance, it's a slam dunk," she said.
Both mother and son love "Water Tower Town," a song about a small town that certainly sounds like Garner, with references to Friday night football games, sweet tea and "your mom and them."
Though they hope "Water Tower Town" will be released as a single, Scotty's current single - and the one he's likely to perform a lot this week - is "The Trouble With Girls," about a smitten young man who just can't figure out females. Scotty filmed the video for the song - with a bunch of his fellow students as extras - at Garner High on Saturday.
As for his own love life, Scotty said there is no romance right now. He said when he does decide to have a relationship, he wants a girl who doesn't want to date him because he's a star but who "likes me for just being Scotty." (His mom said Scotty needs a "low-drama, low-maintenance" girlfriend.)
After a busy fall with the album release and school, there will be the tour with Paisley. Then will come high school graduation, then figuring out how to balance his career and college. A longtime Wolfpack fan, Scotty is looking at N.C. State, where he'll sing the national anthem before Saturday's football game. And he's strongly interested in Belmont University in Nashville, whose country music alumni include Paisley, Josh Turner, Trisha Yearwood and Lee Ann Womack.
Scotty said he's already talked with Belmont officials, who noted that while some of the school's graduates went on to become famous, the university has never had an active student who is a big celebrity.
But until this fall, neither had Garner High. And that seems to be working out OK.
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