In 1998, songwriter Bobby Braddock (“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today”) was getting ready to produce a new artist from Oklahoma. In his upcoming memoir, A Life on Nashville’s Music Row, due this fall, Braddock recalls that the singer was “tall, funny, irreverent, mullet-headed and talented.” Today, that artist is known simply as Blake Shelton.
Although Shelton would secure a contract with Giant Records, it would be April 2001 before his first single was released. Originally titled “If This Is Austin,” the song was penned by relative newcomers David Kent and Kirsti Manna, neither of whom had yet scored a major hit at the time. Manna’s previous claim to fame was as host of a children’s TV series called Kirsti’s Manor, while Kent’s “Beyond the Blue” was a 1995 album cut for Martina McBride.
“Austin” came about after Manna heard the story of a songwriter who had broken up with his girlfriend, who then moved to the Texas capital. The songwriter had put a new outgoing message on his answering machine: “By the way – if this is Austin, I still love you.” Inspired after she heard the message, Manna told Kent about it. The difficult part of crafting the tune came in ensuring its happy resolution.
“He kept missing her, and she kept missing him,” Kent told Country Weekly in 2001. “How’s it gonna end? The thing that finally worked was the twist ending, where he calls back and thinks for a minute he’s got her answering machine – but he’s really got her! So that put a bit of a smile at the end of it.”
The reaction to “Austin” from country radio listeners was almost as immediate. The tune about a broken-up couple playing a heart-wrenching game of phone tag especially resonated with women. But just as the song was gaining major momentum, Giant Records closed up shop. Shelton was left without a record deal, but there was no stopping the “Austin” juggernaut. With the option to sign some of Giant’s displaced acts, Warner Bros. Records snapped up Shelton and “Austin” rolled on, becoming the singer’s first chart-topping hit on August 11th, 2001. The song eventually logged five weeks at Number One, becoming the first debut hit since Billy Ray Cyrus’s “Achy Breaky Heart” to spend the same number of weeks atop the country chart.
Although two subsequent singles (“All Over Me” and the story song, “Ol’ Red”) were released from his debut LP, neither broke the Top 15. Shelton’s next Number One, “The Baby,” was the first single from his sophomore release, The Dreamer. To date, the singer has earned 20 Number One hits on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart. And Blake Shelton, the self-titled album that gave us “Austin,” was just last year certified platinum, having sold over one million copies.