GARNER — When Scotty McCreery was in Hollywood to crown his “American Idol” successor in late May, he had a bit of advice: Don’t get too cocky.
McCreery, who won Season 10 of the popular TV singing competition, told Season 11 winner Phillip Phillips that even though the “Idol” victory marks the end of that competition, it’s just the beginning if you want a career in music.
“There’s a whole ’nother world out there – a huge business that I’m still learning about,” said McCreery, an 18-year-old Garner resident. “So I told him, just go out there looking to learn and looking for people who can help you out.”
“Looking to learn” has been something of a mantra for McCreery since his “Idol” win last year.
It’s why the country singer with the deep-beyond-his-years voice has reached out to others in Nashville for guidance and is now touring with one of his idols, country singer Brad Paisley.
It’s why he returned for his senior year at Garner High School last fall, even though he could have picked up the few credits he needed to graduate from a private tutor.
And it’s why McCreery – at a time when others in his position might put career above all else – will enroll as a freshman at N.C. State University in a few weeks. He’s looking for a major – maybe communications or public relations – that will help make him a more well-rounded performer.
“I love what I do,” McCreery said. “As long as that’s the case and as long as I’m having a good ole time, I’ll keep on doing it, keep on trying to balance this life.”
‘A jam-packed year’
Winning “American Idol” brings instant fame and a rush of offers, but that celebrity can die down just as quickly as it arises. Sure, some previous winners – particularly Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson – have gone on to become music superstars. But some other past “Idol” champs are hardly household names these days. Lee DeWyze, who won Season 9, had minimal music success and did not appear on the live show the night McCreery succeeded him.
McCreery – the show’s first male country winner – won bigger acclaim out of the gate than other recent winners. His first album, “Clear As Day,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart in October. It has since gone platinum, with sales of more than 1 million, and spawned two gold singles – “I Love You This Big” and “The Trouble With Girls.”
Lisa McKay, station manager of Raleigh’s WQDR, said the country radio station has seen a “phenomenal” response to McCreery’s music that transcends just local pride.
“I think America’s speaking pretty clearly, and Scotty’s a winner,” McKay said.
McCreery has been named best new artist at three different country music award shows in the past six months, has appeared on most every TV talk show, has performed atop a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.
“We’ve had a jam-packed year,” McCreery said.
McCreery, who pitched for his high school baseball team this year, particularly recalled his performance of the national anthem before Game 1 of last year’s World Series. “Me being a baseball nut, that was big for me.”
At least one family member – mother Judy, father Mike or sister Ashley – is usually with McCreery on the road; sometimes all three when they can make it work. At awards shows, they rotate who gets to sit beside him on camera when he’s nominated. (Ashley, a college student, had the choice spot last month when her brother was honored at the CMT Music Awards.)
Each member of the family has seen collateral fame, too. They all have Twitter accounts with thousands of followers. Some rabid young fans worldwide even want to know about the comings and goings of the family dogs, Becky and Junior.
‘Water Tower Town’
For all the adoration elsewhere, McCreery says his life is remarkably low-key when he’s home in Garner. That’s why he and his parents fought for him to attend his senior year at Garner High. “Idol” producers didn’t think it was possible; they said McCreery’s appearance on campus would be too disruptive.
But the McCreerys, working with Garner High Principal Drew Cook, prevailed. Students were asked not to bother McCreery for pictures or autographs during the school day, but Cook said that was really a nonissue. For the rest of the nation, he may have been “American Idol Scotty McCreery,” but in Garner, he was just Scotty.
“You usually don’t ask someone that you know for an autograph, even if he may happen to be a star,” Cook said.
Scenes of the Trojans football team and Garner High – along with McCreery’s church (First Baptist of Garner), the fire department and other town spots – are in the music video for his just-released third single, “Water Tower Town.” And yes, the Garner water tower makes an appearance as McCreery sings of a place where “Friday night football is king” and “sweet tea goes good with anything.”
The high school also was the setting of the music video for “The Trouble With Girls,” which featured many of McCreery’s friends. The teenage girl he flirts with in a chemistry lab in the video is fellow student Gabi Dugal, his date to the Garner High prom this spring.
Last month, McCreery and his family had to catch an after-midnight flight from Nashville, where he won the CMT Music Award, back to the Triangle to make Garner’s 8 a.m. graduation ceremony.
No parade at State
Though N.C. State – his father’s alma mater – is much bigger than Garner High, McCreery hopes he’ll be able to blend in just as discreetly there.
“There are big-time college basketball and football players walking around campus every day that are stars in their own right. They are treated normal,” he said. “So I can see it working out pretty well.”
N.C. State spokesman Mick Kulikowski laughed when he recalled a celebrity gossip publication asking whether the school would be having a parade for its celebrated freshman.
“Scotty will be one of 4,200 students starting in the fall,” Kulikowski said. “We don’t do parades for them.”
McCreery and his family have had to make some sacrifices. Though he initially hoped to live in a dorm, he decided on a more private off-campus apartment. He’ll live with friends he’s known for a long time and who he trusts, he said.
He also hopes to get most of his classes scheduled for the early part of the week, leaving Friday and the weekend open for performances.
“That’s when the shows are,” he said. “Nobody goes to a country concert on Tuesday night.”
Though McCreery has been a part of the Paisley tour since the beginning of the year and he’s scheduled for dates stretching into late October, he is conspicuously absent in mid-August (including Paisley’s Aug. 24 stop at Walnut Creek). That’s by design to give him time to get acclimated with his college life and schedule.
Bowling and laundry
Once he’s settled in as a freshman and the tour is over, McCreery hopes to turn some of his attention to his follow-up CD. He expects it to be released in early 2013 and said he’s intentionally taking his time after the quick first release.
His lessons in Country Music Stardom 101 continue with each stop on the tour. He particularly likes how Paisley finds time to have fun amid the constant traveling and performing. In recent weeks, he’s taken the crew to movies, bowling and go-karting, McCreery said.
But it’s not all glamorous. Even music stars sometimes have to worry about mundane stuff, such as laundry.
“I was texting my friends once, and they were asking how the road was,” McCreery said. “I was like, ‘I’m in Idaho right now at a Laundromat, playing cornhole in the parking lot.’ ”
And, he’s quick to note, he was thankful and having a good time while doing it.