There's a telling scene in Scotty McCreery's new book, Go Big or Go Home: The Journey Toward the Dream, that takes place during his championship run on Season 10 of American Idol. In the semi-final selection rounds — before the week-by-week fan voting competition begins — he still has to earn himself a spot in the final 12. He chooses to sing John Michael Montgomery's "Letters From Home" not just because he knows and loves the song, but because the country's been at war for years and he thinks the audience will respond to its emotional depiction of military families.
The approach works. Even though the fans aren't voting just yet, their feedback is strong enough that the judges shoo him through to the final 12 — and we all know how the rest plays out.
"The strategic side of me was like, 'I've jammed to 'Letters From Home' my whole life,'" McCreery tells Rolling Stone Country. "It's one of my favorite songs. But I was also like, 'I want to do a song that I love that will also relate to folks back home' so they'll listen to it like, 'I'm on board with that song. I'm on board with that guy.'"
But it's interesting because McCreery is openly acknowledging that he saw Idol as the competition it actually was, and he made decisions that aligned with his personal beliefs and brand while also motivating fans to pick up their phones and vote. The fact that he was 17 during his stint on the show is all the more remarkable considering there were older contestants who handled the experience like karaoke night with friends. By contrast, McCreery was telling his story every week: a polite, small-town guy who loves his family and friends. That clear, concise narrative was crucial to his Idol success.
This sense of competition and strategy (a recurring theme in Go Big or Go Home, out today) coupled with unflagging loyalty to self stems partly from McCreery's background in sports, particularly baseball, making him equipped on a basic level to play in the country music majors. That he didn't immediately attain superstar status after leaving Idol is probably due to a number of factors, one of which is that nearly all artists working at the elite level have a strong sense of how to win. It's like the gulf between high school and professional athletics.
Go Big or Go Home wraps up in a positive and open-ended manner, making no mention of the fact that McCreery's record label dropped him from its roster earlier in 2016 — likely because it was already at the publisher when he got the news or because it's a total bummer, or both. Still, the label dump took many by surprise because his debut album Clear as Day sold more than a million copies and he'd scored a Top 10 with the incrementally more adult title track to See You Tonight, Clear as Day's follow-up. But McCreery was hamstrung to a certain degree by being an innocent teenager, one with the added pressure of avoiding alienating his fans with anything too racy or off message.
Sure enough, when McCreery strayed further from his home territory with the single "Southern Belle" — a fairly standard list of Southern signifiers accompanied by a video that featured gratuitous cheerleader skin — he failed to make much of an impression. That's when Universal said farewell, though it's possible they were also the guiding hand behind his decision to cut the song.
"I just want to sing. I love to sing, but there is the business side too," says McCreery. "You know, it was a little bit of a surprise, but it was a business decision."
Not having a record label is a big business setback for McCreery, whose wits and raw talent brought him to the game in the first place. Now he has the tough but necessary task of devising a new strategy for releasing his music, deciding what concessions he can make for radio and pinpointing who he really is in the public eye.
For now, that'll have to be a chapter for a future book.