He came to prominence by winning American Idol in 2011. He hit No. 1 on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart twice and notched four top 20 singles between those two projects. Had his career ended when his record label dropped him in 2016, Scotty McCreery definitely would have received his 15 minutes of fame.
But the clock hasn’t run out. The appropriately titled “Five More Minutes” has extended his run, going all the way to No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart dated March 3. With his first Triple Tigers project — Seasons Change, due March 16 — there are signs that he could spend a long time in the public spotlight. McCreery co-wrote each of the 11 tracks, and the result is an album that’s notably personal in its themes and storylines. Just as important, he delivers the material with greater smoothness and maturity. He has, it appears, found his creative footing.
“This album is a much better example of who I am as an artist, but even more than that, as a person,” says McCreery in a relaxed afternoon chat in his publicist’s office. “I couldn’t have made this record when I was 17. I couldn’t have made this record when I was 20. I just didn’t have it in me. The craft wasn’t there.”
Neither, for that matter, were the hard knocks and life experience that inform the best country music. That Idol whirlwind plucked him out of Garner, N.C., while he was still attending high school and put his deep, rich tones in primetime.
“I was a kid that was playing baseball and bagging groceries,” he reflects. “A few months later, I’m making a record. It’s like, ‘What am I going to say?'”
He really didn’t know, often until the last minute. McCreery, who was still finishing his education, could only devote part-time attention to a more-than-full-time job. He commuted between North Carolina and Nashville, and he picked and learned his music — the product at the heart of his career — on the fly.
“A lot of times, we’d be [headed] in the studio the next week, and that’s when everybody in town started pitching songs,” he says. “I would hear an awesome song but only have a week to learn this song. I didn’t have enough time to live with it.”
Adult disappointments inevitably appeared. He and some college classmates were robbed at gunpoint in 2014, his grandfather died in 2015, and Universal Music Group Nashville cut him loose in 2016 after “Southern Belle” peaked at No. 45 on Country Airplay.
“For 24 hours, I was in a low, low spot,” he recalls. “I was having a pity party for myself, and I was finally just like, ‘Dude, get yourself together. You are 22, 23 years old. You’ve had an incredible life. You’ve gotten to travel the world, you get to sing for a living. Sure, this sucks, but you’ll figure it out. Just pick up the pieces.’ From that moment on, I was really just chugging along.”
Much of that year was spent rejiggering his associations. It took almost all of 2016 to untangle himself from 19 Entertainment and Interscope, and gain ownership of a few unreleased masters, including “Five More Minutes.” McCreery started performing it publicly in June 2016. Written a week after his grandfather’s passing, the song’s real-life message inevitably struck a chord with audiences and became a sort of beacon of hope as he moved through the litigation.
“People were crying and losing their minds and standing up, and we’d have to tell them, ‘Please, sit down, thank you,’ ” he says of the concert response to “Five More Minutes.”
Thus, when McCreery started reassembling his team, Triple 8 Management assisted him in what might have been the boldest decision of his career thus far. He self-released the single to country radio via PlayMPE on May 10, 2017, footing his own promotion and marketing costs while he shopped for a new label.
“We knew this song was special,” he says, “so if I had to bet the resurgence of my career on a song that I had to pay for out of my own pocket, then we were going to bet on ‘Five More Minutes.'”
McCreery found believers. It started making an impact at radio, then Triple Tigers signed him to the label and took it home. Out of all the heartbreak from that downturn in his career, he had figured out how to surround himself with the right squad.
“The questions I was asking were just from experience and things I’ve learned,” he says. “It’s crazy to have five or six years of experience and still be 23 years old. But it really feels like everybody is one team, one goal, one unified vision of where I want my career to go. My manager sees that, my label sees that, and we’re all fighting toward that same thing.”
Seasons Change introduces McCreery 2.0, beginning with the title track, the first song he wrote when he found himself without a label home. It opens with a thunderstorm, a symbolic nod to the adversity he had weathered, then announces in the first verse that “it’s a brand-new me, yeah, a brand-new day.” Throughout the rest of the set, he sprinkles in personal experiences, nodding to his elementary school with a reference to Timber Drive in “Home in Mind,” paying homage to the regional beach music scene in “Barefootin’,” reliving his high-school years in “Boys From Back Home” and celebrating his bride-to-be with the engagement song “This Is It,” which is pegged as the follow-up to “Five More Minutes.”
Sometime after the wedding, he fully expects the couple will relocate permanently to Nashville, where he can more easily treat the career like the more-than-full-time job that it is. And he can continue on this newfound path of creative maturity, a road where he’s able to take his own time to tell his own story.
“My first two records, I was literally having to read while I was singing, whereas this one is just memory,” he says. “I wrote [it], and I’ve lived with it, and I’ve listened to it a ton. And I wasn’t looking at the paper at all to see what the next line is. I just sang it.”