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blake shelton
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BLAKE SHELTON

 

My God, that song just slaps you in the face when you hear it," Blake Shelton declares, praising the writers responsible for his first single, "Austin," from his Warner Bros. Records’ debut album, Blake Shelton.

Already a breakout success, "Austin" is waking up country music fans to a fresh new artist with his own voice and concept of delivering this music genre in its true form. The craftily plotted phone-tag drama of "Austin" isn’t the only number that leaps from the self-titled album’s grooves and commands listeners' attention. "All Over Me," co-written by Blake and his "all-time musical hero," Earl Thomas Conley, combines a deliciously deviant double-entendre with Shelton’s ability to nail a difficult and electric falsetto scaling into a masterful performance.

Though listeners will be entranced by the vocal acrobatics, they’ll be even more impressed by the diversity and originality of the songs. "Old Red", with its cleverly twisted plot, deserves its own movie. "I Thought There Was Time" chronicles the haunting and lingering pain of love lost by negligence, while the modern day drama of "Problems At Home" tackles many important personal and social issues apparent in the world today.

All of this meaningful music, spanning from local to global, comes from a dashing and dynamic new performer who got his start in a children’s talent show at the tender age of eight. And, somewhere out there, missing in action, is the videotape of that performance.

"I used to sing in my bedroom all the time, and my mom heard me in there and thought I was cute. She figured, ‘We’ve got to show this off!’ So she entered me into a talent show when I was eight years old. It was the first time I stepped on stage. And it was with fifty little girls!"

In Blake’s mind, the talent show pain is as fresh as yesterday. "I was totally embarrassed and humiliated, and I didn’t want any of my friends to know about it. I was in the talent portion with all those girls who were the same age as me, but they were girls, man! They were little girls! That’s what killed me. When a boy is eight years old, you don’t like girls. I know I didn’t. I told Mom I didn’t want to sing any more because it’s too embarrassing."

It took the youngster five years – and a solemn promise of no more talent show appearances – before he once again sang for an audience on country shows in his hometown of Ada, Oklahoma.

Responsibility for jump-starting his musical journey again goes to Blake’s Uncle Dearl (pronounced Darrell). "He’s the only musical person in my family – he plays guitar and sings," Blake explains. From uncle to nephew came the basic guitar chords of C, F and G. "We’d go fishing together, and when we’d get back to the house, he’d grab his guitar. I was in awe of that."

Playing guitar grew from hobby to necessity as Blake started to write songs. His first composition came when he was 15. "I thought it was a cool song at the time," says Blake, "but, really, it was a big piece of crap." While his writing languished, Blake’s performing style improved when he played honky-tonk bars and became a regular on a local country music show.

At the age of 17, when most kids are thinking about caps, gowns and college, Blake’s eyes turned eastward from the Sooner State during a fortunate encounter with Mae Boren Axton.

The late beloved Nashville songwriter and patron to struggling artists had returned to her Oklahoma roots for a tribute show honoring her in Ada. Blake was part of the entertainment lineup, and Mae was impressed with what she saw and heard. She convinced the new, raw talent that he needed to move to Nashville if he wanted a successful country music singing career. That gentle nudge from the woman who co-wrote Elvis Presley’s smash "Heartbreak Hotel" was all the encouragement the dream-seeking performer needed. "For somebody who was that credible in the music industry, that was a huge deal for me," he recalls.

Two weeks out of high school in 1994, Blake took several deep breaths, packed his guitar, hopes and dreams, and headed to Nashville with aspirations of making it like the Oklahomans who came before: Reba McEntire, Garth Brooks, Vince Gill and Ronnie Dunn. He found a tiny apartment and, since he was still only 17, convinced some friends to co-sign his gas and electric bills to get them turned on.

It didn’t take long for the starry-eyed Oklahoma kid to realize that stardom was no overnight achievement. Blake’s first Music City lesson was to realize that he made a damn good painter. "I called Mae when I got to Nashville, talking about a job. I asked her what she wanted me to do now." "Well," answered Mae Boren Axton, who was preparing for a family reunion at her home, "you can come and paint my house for me."

That two-week brush with a painter’s job led to another fortunate Axton encounter that would propel Blake’s ambitions. Mae’s son – songwriter, singer, actor Hoyt Axton – was living in his tour bus parked in her driveway. Hoyt, like his mother, always had time to encourage new unknown talents. During lunch breaks, he would invite the paint-splattered Shelton onto his bus.

"He’d tell you stories like he’d known you forever," Blake still marvels, his voice growing soft with respect and admiration for the late artist. "He’d sing and talk to me about the industry." On Blake’s 18th birthday, Hoyt, after learning that Blake collects pocketknives, excused himself and rummaged around in a rear closet. He returned with a long Bowie knife that a fan had made for him, which he then gave to the young overwhelmed singer. "It was a huge deal for me," says Blake.

Blake began playing Writers’ Nights gigs at various Nashville clubs, with Douglas Corner becoming his favorite home base. Shortly thereafter, he landed his first "real" job, working at a music publishing company, making tape copies of writers’ songs.

A slight on-the-job problem arose, however. "When the songwriters came in, I wanted to hang out with them, talk to them, be around them." Blake ignored his assigned duties to do just that, which led, not surprisingly, to his dismissal.

He persevered, however, and his impressive singing talents finally led to demo sessions. In 1997, he was co-writing with a friend who tipped off producer Bobby Braddock about this promising writer-singer, who cites such influences to his music as Earl Thomas Conley, Travis Tritt, Hank Williams, Jr. and Dan Seals. After Braddock heard a tape of Shelton, they met. "It took a while to get things going, but we eventually decided he was going to be my producer, and we would cut some things," explains Blake.

Braddock, an acclaimed songwriter who co-wrote the standards "He Stopped Loving Her Today," "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," and "Time Marches On" among others, secured Blake a production deal with Sony Music. "If there’s one person that’s done more for me than anybody in the world as far as my career, it’s Bobby," praises Blake. "He has taken me, hung in there with me and fought for me. I’ll never be able to do enough to repay him for everything he’s done."

With Braddock as producer, Blake signed with Tree Productions. The first song they recorded, "Old Red," is now in place on the Warner Bros. debut album. Ironically, that was a song Hoyt had sung for Blake during one of the lunch breaks spent on the tour bus parked in Mae Boren Axton’s driveway.

Now, as the first single "Austin" makes waves and his self-titled debut album readies for release, Blake is tossing those stiff paint brushes permanently into storage. Blake Shelton shimmers with powerful, poignant writing (including 4 self-penned songs) and on-the-mark performances. His vocal dexterity allows him to achieve the gravel-voiced growl of Conway Twitty, the tricky falsetto wanderings of Dan Seals, and the smooth and riveting emotionalism of Garth Brooks, but the sound is always singularly Shelton. The album runs the gamut from low-down honky-tonk "She Doesn’t Know She’s Got It," to the modern "Problems At Home." Like Blake himself, the album is clear, direct and forceful.

"It’s heavy stuff," Blake admits, "but it’s out there. I don’t see why people can’t talk about stuff like that because it’s real people and they want to hear real life. It ain’t all about sunshine and flowers."

Blake’s already made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry, citing it as a "religious experience" when he traversed the slab of wooden stage at the Opry House that was taken from the old Ryman Auditorium. Noting that legends like Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Roy Acuff had scuffed that unbroken circle, Blake says, "I had to walk around it, and on it, to make sure I made my mark there."

He’s now making his mark as a bright new talent, many years beyond that inauspicious beginning in front of fifty little girls.