If country music is going to live and thrive as a true American music form – and there is doubt about it – a view of where the music may well end up was onstage at the Harley Davidson stage at Summerfest Thursday night.
Scotty McCreery is all of 20 years old, just three years removed from the factory of "American Idol." He just released his third album and is on the road with a big red tour bus.
I spent some time in that bus with him while a gaggle of girls gathered around what would soon be his stage. They had jeans and jean shorts, cowboy boots and lots of cowboy hats. They had signs with their phone numbers on them. They were ready for something down home, mixed with a healthy dose of clean-cut sex appeal.
It’s a big life, and McCreery seems to be living it well, not letting the star life take control.
"He’s a real level headed kid," said Mike Childers, the tour manager who has been in the business for 30 years. They called him right after the "American Idol" victory, and he’s been with McCreery ever since.
"I think I’ve done a pretty good job of balancing the celebrity thing and real life," McCreery said, lounging barefoot and in shorts (this is not a fancy kid). "I keep my family close and the guys here on the tour. And the friends I’ve had all my life are still my friends. I call them my biggest haters because they’ll hear one of my songs on the radio, and they’ll say, ‘Who’s that pretty boy we heard?’"
That kind of thing does tend to help keep your feet on the ground.
"I admit that I’m a traditionalist," he said. "I grew up wanting to be Elvis. I listened to Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap. I try to straddle the line between that music and the modern stuff. I can’t go too far back because nobody would come out. But I don’t want to be a guy who sells out and goes totally mainstream."
McCreery auditioned for "American Idol" in Milwaukee, first at the Bradley Center and then at the Calatrava.
"We had a good day today," he said. "We played golf at Brown Deer and then we were on our way to Cousins for a sub when we passed the Bradley Center. I said that’s where my dad and I sat at 4:45 in the morning and I said, ‘What the heck are we doing here?’"
McCreery has a good history of selling records and doing big live shows for a kid who can’t even walk into a bar legally yet. A big part of the reason is what he’s like on stage. His performance at Thursday night was striking. He’s got a deep voice, think Randy Travis before he went off the deep edge. When he sings, you can understand the words.
But what he really has is presence. He’s kind of like a young Marlon Brando walking onto a stage. You just know something good is coming. The stage is his. Sure, there are lights and a little flash, but he and his tight band avoid so many of the things that make country music the wasteland it has almost become.
No guitar player in the band wants to prove how many notes he can play in one measure of music. Nobody is dancing like crazy, although McCreery has some decent moves for a pitcher with a Division 1 slider and a Division 4 fastball.
And he can sing. Really sing. He’s the kind of guy who can change keys in the middle of the song all on his own, not needing to be led by a guitar or keyboard.
He’s in control, and the people love him. I mean, they absolutely loved him Thursday night. He opened with "Now" from his new album and worked his way through about 20 songs with a kind of frank and open honesty that is rare in the world of music these days.
Country music is just about overwhelmed these days by big, big drums; big, fast and frenzied guitar; and a kind of formulaic tempo to every song, regardless of what the words call for. It’s not that the world of male country stars is totally empty of talent. It’s just that they all sound the same.
Not this kid, who’s going to North Carolina State and has a girlfriend he’s known since kindergarten who wants to stay out of the limelight.
He’s a refreshing guy, whether chatting in his tour bus or watching him command a stage without the histrionics we see way too much of.
If I was guessing, and I am, I’d say that McCreery is going to carve a new niche in country music, between the revered olden days and the frantic pop-country that we have now. And that niche is going to be a wonderful treat for everyone who listens to country music.
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