No longer is Scotty McCreery the country-music star who finds time for a full load of college classes. "That was tough," says the 2010 "American Idol" winner. "It took a lot out of me to do that. Monday to Wednesday, I'd be physically in class, then Thursday to Sunday we'd tour. I'd get here late Sunday night or early Monday morning and I'd get to class. I enjoyed the challenge, but it was a big juggling act."
McCreery still attends North Carolina State University in Raleigh, N.C., not far from Garner, his hometown. But he recently realized that in order for a country star to have hit country singles, he needs to schmooze radio programmers everywhere, in person. That takes time away from studying. While he did extremely well in his first semester — "one credit shy of Dean's List, which would have been a nice clipping for the press," McCreery says — his academic performance flattened out a bit. So he's a part-time student.
"I felt like (professors) were empathetic but not sympathetic. They understood what I was going through, but they also had the mindset of 'if you're going to be a student, you're going to be a student,'" he says. "Kind of had the effect of the kid whose dad is on the ball team — a coach who's harder on him than any other player. They didn't want to give me any special gradings. Which is what I wanted. If I'm going to do it, I'm going to do it."
McCreery, 20, was an instant country hitmaker in 2011, not long after he won "Idol." His first single, a ballad called "I Love You This Big," hit No. 32 on the country charts, setting a record for a debut single. But he has had trouble sticking to radio playlists since then, particularly for his latest album, last year's "See You Tonight." The title track peaked at No. 15, and nothing else made the Top 40 on Billboard's Hot Country 100. McCreery acknowledges the work he still needs to do to push his songs onto the radio.
"Country radio is a relationship. I felt like that was one thing I needed to do — go meet these people and say 'hey,' and get to know them. ... It's still a work in progress," he says, by phone from campus in Raleigh. "This semester will be pretty important for me. If my label needs to call me at the last second — 'you need to go here' — I'm available."
McCreery began singing as a little kid, evolving from school concerts to competitions and coffeehouses in his hometown. In high school, he was a baseball pitcher, but he auditioned for the Fox talent-show fixture at age 16, finding himself on TV before judges Jennifer Lopez, Steven Tyler and Randy Jackson. They compared his warm baritone to that of Randy Travis, and from there, the loyal country fan-voters took over. He beat another country singer, Lauren Alaina, and bid farewell to his pitching career forever.
The thought crossed McCreery's mind to try out for NC State baseball, but he rejected it quickly. He has talked to the head coach, Elliott Avent, and both agree that McCreery has a "Division I slider" but a "Division IV fastball" — not enough variety for a college pitcher. "If I got back in the saddle, and really started working hard, I could. Maybe," he says. "But they're a really, really good team. I don't know if my skills could hack it."
"I was always a pitcher — that was my first gig. Baseball was a huge part of my life until about two years ago," he says. "I worked hard at it, but music was always a passion. Music was what I came home to. I picked up my guitar and started learning new songs."
After "Idol," McCreery immediately put out "Clear As Day," in which his deep-but-expressive voice transcends a mostly formulaic album dealing with stolen kisses, country roads and mama hollering "suppertime." He followed up last year with "See You Tonight," which he has repeatedly called his "more mature" album — he co-wrote five songs for it, and the album has a bit more complexity and nuance than the debut. "Feel Good Summer Song," for example, cleverly subverts the happy title and chronicles a relationship gone bad: "The sunshine only lights up what is wrong," he sings.
"One of the big things I loved for this record, which we didn't have for the first record, was time. We got off the show ('Idol'), and did a record, so we didn't have time to get creative," he recalls. "We took more than a year to make this record -- we were writing months and months ago and searching for songs way more early. We just had a lot more material to look through and I feel like we had better song selections.
"It's not all rainbows and butterflies," he says. "There's some heartbreak in there."
When: 8 p.m. Thursday
Where: Joe's Bar, 940 W. Weed St.
Tickets: $27; 312-337-3486 or joesbar.comCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun