When Scotty McCreery thought about casting cheerleaders in the video for his new single “Southern Belle,” he knew he didn’t want them to be seen as gratuitous eye candy. Instead, he wanted to shine a light on their inherent strength. “Obviously they’re pretty and everything, which is awesome, but it’s showcasing how strong they are,” McCreery tells Rolling Stone Country of the women in the video, members of the cheerleading squads from Nashville’s Belmont and Lipscomb Universities. “Anyone who doesn’t think cheerleading is a sport, I laugh. I played baseball my whole life and I couldn’t flip or twirl.”
The 22-year-old musician, who had a hit with “The Trouble With Girls” in 2011, says he’s discovering more and more about the opposite sex every day, especially their resiliency. “There’s a lot to women, I’m finding out through my girlfriend, through all kinds of folks,” he says.
He’s also found out a lot about himself since skyrocketing to fame at 17 on American Idol‘s 10th season. The North Carolina native reflects that maturity on his third studio album, due out early next year, as well as in his autobiography, coming in May.
McCreery’s last studio album, See You Tonight, was released in October 2013, giving him more than two years in between albums. While that’s par for the course by country music industry standards, the business-savvy singer admits concern. “We should have had another single before ‘Southern Belle’ to bridge that gap,” McCreery says. “Feels a lot longer to the fans than it does to me. This was the way I wanted to make the album, take time to make sure it’s right. We had some success last time, but I’m not content with that. I want some Number Ones, and that starts with the music, and I want to make sure it’s right on my end. I’ve been writing a lot more and that takes a while.”
Among the songs he co-wrote on the new album is a track called “Five More Minutes,” which strikes a particularly personal note. “This song takes you back to when you were a kid and Mama’s yelling at you to come inside and you’re just, ‘Five more minutes!’ Or having your girlfriend out there and her dad’s yelling for her to come inside,” he says. “It ends up on my grandfather, who passed in January, and there are a few things I wish I could have said [and] done with him before he went. There are some personal things I would have tried to get across to him or even just some lighthearted things like that last time I played golf with him.”
While working on the new album, McCreery also took time to write Go Big or Go Home: The Journey Toward the Dream, a book that chronicles his adventures thus far, including winning Idol. It’s set for a May 2016 release. “We’re telling stories about my life so I guess it is an autobiography, but I call it a ‘travelogue’ because it’s my experiences, my perspective,” he says. “I had to grow up really quick at 16 years old, so I’ve got a different perspective than most 22-year-olds who are just getting out into the world.
“One of the coolest things about my career is I’m growing up with it,” the singer continues. “My first album you see 17-year-old me; my second album, 19-year-old me, and now with my third album, 22-year-old me. I’ve heard people say, ‘What do you have to write about? You’re 22!’ Well, actually, we’re leaving a lot of stuff out.”
Work on both the album and the book took a backseat this summer, however, when McCreery opened for Rascal Flatts on their amphitheater tour. He’s such a fan of the trio that he snuck unrecognized into the audience each night to watch them perform. “I can blend in anywhere,” he says. “I put on a little hat. I went up on the lawn and kept my head down. I wanted to see what the crowd was reacting to, what’s working, what’s not. I just like to learn. I’m a fan.”
So, apparently, were his pals who often join him on the road. “One night, we stopped at a truck stop rest area and and everybody’s getting off the bus and one of my buddies goes, ‘Hey, that’s [Rascal Flatts’ Jay DeMarcus’s] bus! I’m gonna go on it!’ I said, ‘No, don’t do that.’ He walked on without me. Just walks on Jay’s bus. I’m like ‘Oh, boy, he might get shot,'” says McCreery with a laugh. “Jay’s like ‘Oh, hey!’ He recognized him from earlier and was like, ‘Let’s go get some Denny’s.’ So it was me, my friend, Jay DeMarcus and his whole crew. I grew up on Rascal Flatts. You wouldn’t expect to be chilling at Denny’s at 1 a.m., trading stories. We had the Grand Slam and we were good.”
And about that aforementioned girlfriend? She remains McCreery’s main southern belle, even if they’ve decided to keep their relationship low key. He and Gabi Dugal have been together for several years, but while she has appeared in videos for “The Trouble With Girls” and “Feelin’ It,” Dugal has yet to walk a red carpet with McCreery. “She kind of keeps to herself. She’s very independent,” he says. “I’m not saying she wouldn’t do [the red carpet]. If we get married or something, she’ll do it.” No engagement yet though: Dugal was at the last week’s CMA Awards, but stayed well off the carpet.