How Scotty McCreery Shed His Innocent Image and Proved Music Row Wrong

With the underdog Number One hit "Five More Minutes" and new album 'Seasons Change,' 'American Idol' winner takes charge of his career

With his new album 'Seasons Change,' Scotty McCreery takes control of his career and image. Credit: Jeff Ray

Scotty McCreery is enjoying a midday glass of white wine at a Nashville rooftop bar, and no one is giving him grief about it. This is notable, because the sheer idea of the onetime American Idol winner being in the same room with alcohol has been enough to make some people uncomfortable – he's good, obedient, proper Scotty, right? Little Scotty. Young Scotty. Good Christian Scotty, who sang "baby, lock the doors and turn the lights down low" on Idol when we all surmised there was zero door-locking or light-dimming going on, back in that 17-year-old's bedroom.

"I'll go out to dinner and people will ask, 'Is it OK to have a drink around Scotty?'" he tells Rolling Stone Country in that silky North Carolina drawl, sitting at the head of a table many stories above Nashville in a denim jacket, tight black jeans and a key around his neck. "I go, 'Are you kidding me? I'll have one with you.' My faith is a huge part of what I do, but I'm a human being, and I like to have fun. That's everybody. I don't think anyone is one thing or another."

McCreery, now 24, is talking about one song on his forthcoming LP Seasons Change, out March 16th, called "In Between" that spells out this idea in lyric form: "I ain't all holy water, and I ain’t all Jim Beam." McCreery may not be 100 percent sinner or saint but, until recently, it was hard to see him as much more than a forever smiling, low-note-hitting picture of the all-American boy. And, for the most part, he's been a pretty happy guy, one who's ridden a huge wave of early success after winning American Idol at 17. But in 2016, that all changed. After his single, the over-produced "Southern Belle," crashed and burned, McCreery got dropped by his record label – the day before he was set to film a mentor spot on the show that made him famous.

"It was a down 24 hours," McCreery says. "I was trying to put on a happy face, but 10 hours earlier I was being told I got released from my record deal. I was trying my best, but I just got dealt the biggest blow of my life." When fans saw the episode, they gave him a hard time on Twitter: he looked a bit dejected, not committed. A little – gasp – unhappy.

To add insult to injury, the single that McCreery really wanted to release instead of "Southern Belle" was a track he co-wrote called "Five More Minutes," about his late grandfather (or "granddad," as he calls him). Starting to establish himself as a songwriter, "Five More Minutes" was glaringly different from anything he'd ever done, but much more in line with the music he loved as a kid – classic country storytelling, driven by a flowing, sometimes tear-jerking, narrative. McCreery is diplomatic about it all – he still takes pains to make sure his words are neutral and exact, and that American Idol media training leaves an everlasting, almost robotic impression on its contestants. Still, it's clear that he was a little more irked than he lets on.

"There aren't too many rebirths that happen in Nashville"

"You could probably tell which song I was fighting for to be the first single," McCreery says. "But they decided to go a different route. And I get it. ['Southern Belle'] was a current sound. They wanted something that fit the format." McCreery was used to making concessions in favor of what works best on country radio: on his last record, he'd recorded a version of Conway Twitty's "Hello Darlin'" that never made the final cut. He kept it in his back pocket, just like "Five More Minutes." But when he left the label, he couldn't release either – he no longer owned them, with legal rights tied up in his old deal.

While revenge is at the center of many great country songs, it's not the center of much country reality: it's rare that an artist gets the opportunity to even the score. But McCreery, after battling things out with lawyers for the entirety of 2016, finally got the rights to "Five More Minutes." He decided to release it to country radio completely on his own after a performance at the Grand Ole Opry that, the morning after, became a trending topic on social media. (When McCreery woke up and checked his socials, he thought, "What the hell did I do last night? Did I screw something up?")

The song caught the attention of Triple Tigers, the new label formed by David Macias of Thirty Tigers, Triple 8 management and Norbert Nix, a team that helped take "Five More Minutes" up the charts, a feat they were simultaneously performing for new country artist Russell Dickerson. "We were at the right place at the right time," Nix tells Rolling Stone Country. "And it's unbelievable what [Scotty's] been through."

Last month, "Five More Minutes" went to Number One, and McCreery celebrated with his family and his fiancée, pediatric nurse Gabi Dugal, up in the mountains – they popped several bottles of cheap champagne for spraying, and a good one to actually consume. It was a stunning turn of events, and one almost unheard of in Nashville. "There aren't too many rebirths that happen here," McCreery says.

Like "Five More Minutes," Seasons Change is an album that melds McCreery's traditional influences with contemporary sounds. He co-wrote all of the songs, something he couldn't have done at 17, fresh from his American Idol victory and with little life experience under his belt. In the wake of 2016's numerous letdowns, some sad, depressing tracks came out in the creative wash. But this time McCreery was in charge, and he didn't want to make an album that waded in misery – he'd lived it all enough. Instead, he wanted to move on and through it, and that transition is what defines Seasons Change, named for the album's opening track that begins with the sounds of a passing thunderstorm.

The themes of the LP include love (with Dugal, of course, whom he took to this very bar on one of their earliest official Nashville dates), home ("Boys From Back Home," for his basketball buddies) and purebred fun – like the horn-embellished, Nineties twang of "Barefootin,'" that nods to the beach music culture of the Carolinas and has McCreery hitting a couple of gloriously low notes. Those kinds of vocal moments are all across Seasons Change, with McCreery proving his instrument is a singularly special bridge between the traditionalists and the pop-forward sectors of the genre. He'll never not sound country and, here, he never lets that twang get dimmed by production. It's his story, and his sound.

"When I was 17, what was I going to say?" McCreery says. "I didn't know anything about life. I wasn't paying my own bills, and I had a lot of growing up to do. Basically, I listened to what other people were saying. Now, I took a more hands-on approach. I know what I want to say, and how to say it. Would I have loved to have won American Idol at 24 and had that life experience? Sure. But I don't think that was my story. I think the charm was this little goofy kid with a deep voice. And boy, it was goofy. I can't even watch those videos back without cringing."

Like fellow Idol contestant Lauren Alaina, who also competed in the show while young, McCreery had to go through his maturation process while already a star – and before he had time to develop himself as an artist and a songwriter. Nix, for one, was struck by how secure Seasons Change is in its identity and by how Triple Tigers was simply able to follow McCreery's lead.

"We are working with an artist who is in his creative prime right now," Nix says. "It's not us, the label, dictating what he's supposed to do. We're facilitating his vision, and country radio is picking up on it. That's tough to do. Not every artist has a vision and can state that vision like he has done. Some are looking for guidance. Some are looking for labels to assist and put a plan together and launch them. But we didn't sit here and A&R his record. That didn't happen at all."

That secure identity is worlds away from the awkward teenager winning American Idol and raising his hands up above his head as he sang his debut single, "I Love You This Big." No one could have predicted how he'd turn those hands into fists, ready to fight.

"When people saw that I got knocked out but got back up, well, it was pretty wild," McCreery says, finishing off that wine. "It's a terrible analogy, but it's kinda like Rocky II. He got knocked out, but he got back up, and he got him the next time."