Like Lauren Alaina, Scotty McCreery had been plugging away for years before getting his big break on "American Idol." Both of the teenage season 10 "Idol" finalists had charmed friends, neighbors and local townspeople with their precocious talent since they were old enough to hold a microphone.
The favorite to win it all, McCreery hails from the small town of Garner, North Carolina (population 27,000), and when he wasn't singing in his school's vocal ensemble or amassing a 10-1 pitching record for the Garner Magnet High School team during his starts on JV and as a junior, McCreery was busy winning local singing competitions like last summer's "Clayton Idol."
WQDR DJ Janie Carothers first heard of Scotty after he'd won "Clayton Idol," and the hometown morning show personality said the first time she heard him sing, she could tell he was something special. McCreery participated in the QDR "hometown tour" last summer, an annual event in McDonald's parking lots to raise money for the North Carolina Children's Hospital.
"It's a big deal, and when we went to Garner, we heard about this kid Scotty who wanted to sing in the parking lot," Carothers said. "He sang 'Ol' Red' by Blake Shelton and 'Your Man' by Josh Turner in a McDonald's parking lot before he went to school that day and you could just tell."
Nearly a year later, Garner has become ground zero for the McCreery phenomenon, with the entire town buzzing with excitement on performance and elimination days.
On "Idol" performance Wednesdays, QDR becomes "Scotty 94.7" to help rally the local population, which Carothers said has gone crazy for their hometown hero. "I honestly don't think he has a clue how big he's gotten," she said. "I think when people think of the South, they have certain judgments, and one of the things we're known for is our hospitality and our ability to rally together, and Garner has proven that. You walk down the streets and you can see people with stuff written on the back of cars, on storefronts, there's banners ... everyone is supporting him."
It also helps, she added, that Scotty is a good ol' country boy and all-American kid who plays baseball, sings in the praise choir in church and is just known as a sweet kid. He further enhanced his Southern gentleman cred last week when he won the coin toss for performance order in the finale and deferred to rival Lauren.
That squeaky-clean reputation is one of the reasons screen-printing business owner Paulette Disbrow turned her PKD printing shop into a virtual Scotty McCreery campaign headquarters over the past few months. With more than 1,000 people cramming into Garner Historic Auditorium every week for the past two months to cheer Scotty on, Disbrow has been supplying them with T-shirts, yard signs and buttons to help spread the word and keep the votes coming.
In keeping with Scotty's reputation as a good kid, all the money that comes in after expenses on all of Disbrow's items is going to charities of the singer's choice, including the youth mission group at his church, uniforms for his high school baseball team and cash for his high school chorus.
"He is exactly as he appears on TV," she said of the humble singer. "There's not a pretentious bone in his body. I was talking to him and his family when I did the original T-shirt design and I said, 'Do you understand where this could go and what happens if you get into the top five? You could go from being a hometown Garner boy to being famous.' And he was like, 'Aw shucks.' "
And Disbrow knows what she's talking about, since she printed the T-shirts for former "Idol" runner-up Clay Aiken when the nearby Raleigh, North Carolina, native made his run on season two.
Garner Mayor Ronnie Williams has joined the weekly viewing parties, which have swelled from a few dozen supporters to more than 2,000 over the past two months, and he's seen the town come together in a major way to support Scotty. "The majority of people here don't know him, but they know about him, and he's caused a bright spotlight to be on Garner, and ultimately he'll see it when he returns," Williams said.
He pointed to another small-town North Carolina "Idol" finalist, season five sixth-place finisher Kellie Pickler, whose hometown still sees traffic from fans who want to see the school or church she went to. "People will come looking for something to touch and feel to get a bit of Scotty McCreery, and in the process, they will stop and get a meal or a tank of gas, and in that regard, Scotty has helped contribute to the success of our local businesses."
In fact, Williams has already dubbed McCreery the "unofficial economic development coordinator" for the town while noting that the attention the singer has brought to the town of 27,000 is the most they've seen since the local high school won the state championship in 1987.
And the best part? "You can dig all day long and find no dirt on him," Williams said proudly, pointing out that the tabloids have descended looking for dish and left empty-handed. "He's a good Christian boy, who is talented and polite and energetic. We're proud of Scotty and proud of our town."
Don't miss a special edition of "Idol Party Live" Thursday at noon on MTV.com for analysis, finale red-carpet coverage and the last "Idol in 60 Seconds" of season 10. Get in the conversation by tweeting with the hashtag #idolparty! In the meantime, get your "Idol" fix on MTV News' "American Idol" page, where you'll find all the latest news, interviews and opinions.