NASHVILLE — With help from some respected music industry veterans, Blake Shelton, a young country singer and songwriter from Ada, Oklahoma, has gotten his big break.
"Austin," the first single from Shelton's self-titled debut album, reached #1 on the Billboard Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart dated August 11. Released Tuesday, the LP is produced by Bobby Braddock, a member of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame. Braddock's credits include "D-I-V-O-R-C-E," "Golden Ring" and "He Stopped Loving Her Today."
When Shelton moved to Nashville seven years ago, at 17, he came with support and encouragement from another wise mentor, the late Mae Boren Axton, mother of Hoyt Axton, co-writer of "Heartbreak Hotel" and a respected, connected champion of Nashville songwriters. Also a native Oklahoman, Axton first heard Shelton when he performed at a tribute concert in her honor, staged in Ada. She remained a believer when he arrived in Nashville to pursue a career in the music business.
"She introduced me to a lot of people once I got here," Shelton said recently. "It was like my security blanket. I always knew if I needed something or if I had a question, I could call Mae. If she didn't know, she would know by the end of the day."
Through a songwriting partner, Shelton came into contact with Braddock. "He would call Bobby and play our work tape over the telephone," Shelton recalled. "That's how Bobby became interested in my voice, those work tapes he was hearing over the telephone."
That happened in the fall of '97. By January, with Braddock's help, Shelton had a production deal at Sony/ATV/Tree, the music publishing house where Braddock's most famous copyrights reside.
Several months later, a Braddock tune, "Same Old Song," helped Shelton land a recording contract with Giant Records. The song takes issue with country music's ongoing preoccupation with sunny love themes. "I'm fed up with the same old vanilla," go the lyrics. Another line states, "I may be country but I'm not dumb." Later in the song, Braddock suggests that writers explore themes of passion, sin and redemption, or that they write about "a cowboy in Australia," "a prisoner in China" or "some old stock car driver down in Orangeburg, S.C."
"There were several people in town that were fighting for that song," Shelton says. Braddock told Giant executives they could have the song if they signed Shelton. "That kinda helped push it over the edge," he said. Shelton signed with Giant in July 1998.
"Same Old Song" won't be a single. It could rub radio staffers and consultants the wrong way, Shelton admitted, and its perspective is probably a little too much inside the music industry for it to have general appeal. "It's more of an anthem for the album," he said. "This is what we're trying to say with this album."
"Austin" — about a relationship that reconnects with help from a telephone answering machine — came to Shelton after he and Braddock had finished his album and turned it into Giant, in August 1999. Debbie Zavitson, a Giant staffer, called Shelton to tell him he needed to come into the office to hear the song.
"I loved the song," he recalled, "but I didn't know if it would work for me, if I could sell it." He went home and learned it on his guitar, growing more assured. "That night, I knew it was going to work for me and I was getting excited."
Shelton recorded the song and Giant released it to country radio stations — only to have the label shut down in April, days before "Austin" entered Billboard's country singles chart. A quick transfer to parent company Warner Bros. Records, and the charmed singer managed to maintain his momentum.
On a recent string of dates, Shelton got the chance to play again for live audiences, like he did back in Ada. "We did Charleston the first night. When we kicked into 'Austin,' it was deafening," he said.
"The same thing in Chattanooga the next night. Then we went down to Tampa, and it was so deafening that on the last chorus I just stopped singing and the crowd finished the song for me. It kinda choked me up.
"I can't believe this is happening," he said. "For me, having a song out is one thing, but having a song that people love and can relate to and they want to sing along to and party to and gets 'em in a good mood, that's full circle for me."
Shelton predicts his next single will be "All Over Me," a song he's proud to have co-written with his singing hero, Earl Thomas Conley. "That's just icing on the cake to me that I got to record it," Shelton said.
With a mix of patience and good fortune, Shelton appears to be on his way. He remembers Axton's advice, that "this isn't going to be easy, and it's going to take a long time. She was absolutely right about that," he says.
The success of "Austin" would seem to bear her out. "I hate to think now about coming out with a different song," Shelton said. "I can't think of a better situation to have, for your first single to be doing this."