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He is the modern-day face of country music. Whether he’s hosting SNL, being featured on 60 Minutes or swiveling in his familiar chair on The Voice, Blake Shelton is the genre’s impeccably dressed ambassador. And while it’s his personality—the irrepressible and unpredictable country charmer inside that handsome exterior—that opens the door, it is his truly impressive musical cred as an entertainer and premier vocalist that seals the deal.
Nowhere is that more evident than in Reloaded: 20 #1 Hits, a collection of chart-toppers from a singer whose career just keeps getting stronger, as a current run of 16 #1s in a row attests. As impressive as that streak is, it is just one aspect of a career that has superstar status written all over it. Blake is a five time consecutive CMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year and his collection of gold and platinum singles and albums is well past the two-dozen mark.
His 21 #1 singles are a cross-section of styles and tempos, unified by a sometimes-underestimated set of pipes and Blake’s sheer charisma and believability as a singer.
“The only common thread I’ve found,” he says with a characteristic grin, “is there are a lot of songs about guys trying to pick up girls. I’ve said it many times—I’ve always been obsessed with that song ‘The Chair’ that Dean Dillon wrote for George Strait, and the whole song was a pickup line! I look now at my history and I probably didn’t realize it but I was always gearing that way—romantic, fun and so country. A lot of my songs fit the bill: ‘Sure Be Cool If You Did, ‘Honey Bee,’ ‘Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,’ ‘Sangria,’ ‘Lonely Tonight,’ ‘My Eyes.’”
But if that part of the analysis is at least somewhat tongue-in-cheek, he follows with serious praise for the singer he has long regarded as his gold standard.
“If there was one artist I wanted to mold my career and my catalog after,” he says, “it would be Conway Twitty. Once you thought you had him figured out, he would come out with another kind of song. He would reinvent himself. Reba does that, and the Hall-of-Fame songwriter Bobby Braddock. And it’s not for the sake of staying on top at radio, It’s more that I want to do something new for my own sanity. It would be easy to keep recording the same three-chord country songs forever, but I want to hear something fresh. I want to push the boundaries like my heroes did.”
That approach has always propelled him forward, and it’s made his catalog one of the freshest and most well-rounded in the industry, ranging from the drama of Austin to the sheer fun of “Hillbilly Bone,” from the exuberant country romance of “Honey Bee” to the elegance and sophistication of “Home.”
“I think as an artist,” he says, “I’m a bridge between guys like Travis Tritt or Tracy Byrd, who were having so many hits when I moved to town, and guys like Jason and Aldean and Sam Hunt, who are burning it up now.” Blake’s catalog of hits proves he’s been comfortable in both worlds, and his audience is a mix of generations, people who find common ground in his voice and approach.
Asked about songs he considers turning points, he points to three:
—“‘The Baby’ is probably the most underrated, and that’s partly my fault because I don’t do it in concert anymore. The song is so heavy and there’s no happy ending. But I think that really opened some eyes at radio because ‘Austin’ was such a big record, and to have ’The Baby’ be such an impact song let them know I wasn’t a one-hit wonder.”
—“‘Hillbilly Bone,’ believe it or not, because my career was changing and going to the next level. That was when I first started getting nominated for awards. Trace and I won some CMA and ACM awards and then I got nominated for Male Vocalist of the Year. That kind of established me as someone who wasn’t going away.”
—“‘Boys ‘Round Here.' Sometimes the driving force behind a hit can be you as a celebrity, but that was such a huge record it became its own thing. It was this big, fun, stupid, ridiculous anthem that was bigger than who I was and that’s when the scales really tipped. When that song came out and all the stuff that was going on with the show and just the momentum I had in my career, that one was the huge giant firecracker at the end of the fireworks show.”
“The show” is, of course, The Voice, which took a career that was already hot to a level nobody—not Blake, not his team, not his fans—fully anticipated.
“I never could have foreseen the power of what The Voice did for me,” he says, “most importantly, just getting people to pay attention to my music. From that point on, we haven’t looked back.”
The Voice gave him the chance to display the charm and wit the Nashville community had always known, enabling a much wider audience to fall for the lanky Oklahoman. It allowed the world to see him bring out the best in others, both as he bantered with the other superstar coaches and as he helped those he coached expand themselves as singers and entertainers—so much so that his proteges have won four of the show’s eight seasons. Finally, it has expanded his creative palette: “One of the reasons The Voice has been so good to me,” he says, “is that I’ve been exposed to so much music I would never have heard, would never even have cared to hear. But once I was forced to listen to it, I found out I do love all kinds of music I never thought I would be into. It’s awesome.”
He has surely arrived at a place he never could have envisioned growing up in Ada, Oklahoma, even though he had his sights set on stardom.
“I was a kid when Garth Brooks did his first television concert,” he says, “and within a month, when I could save up enough money, I bought the exact same guitar Garth had. It was like, ‘I want to be him.’”
His supporters and mentors would span modern country’s golden years. Mae Axton, who wrote “Heartbreak Hotel,” helped urge him to Nashville. Her son Hoyt, whose career spanned folk, rock and country, provided him with “Ol’ Red,” a song that remains to this day a fan favorite. His early writing partners included ‘80s mainstay Earl Thomas Conley, and the producer whose work helped launch him to national stardom was the aforementioned Braddock, known for writing hits that range from “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” and “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to “I Wanna Talk About Me” and “People Are Crazy.”
As Blake learned from each of them, he stayed true to an inner voice he still cites as key to his success.
“I approach music, whether I’m picking songs for an album or picking a singer on the voice, the same way. If I hear something I like, it’s out of my control. It’s like listening to the radio in your truck driving down the road. If I like it, I reach over and turn it up. If I don’t like it, I change the channel. I don’t have a formula. I either feel good about it or I don’t.”
Reloaded: 20 #1 Hits, of course, provides the perfect opportunity for reflection on his legacy, and Blake provides a modest if telling assessment.
“I’ve managed to fit in musically, although I don’t know that I could say I’ve pushed things forward. Time will tell on that score. But when all is said and done, maybe the biggest impact I’ve had on the music industry in Nashville is on the personality front. Artists were media trained to where they were almost afraid to be themselves for fear they’d offend somebody. There were a lot of artists we never knew much about except that they sang these songs. We’re not running for office here and I didn’t want to be that. I wanted to be like Dean Martin and guys like that. I didn’t want to be afraid to be myself and say what I’m thinking, because what do you really hope to accomplish by blending in?”
All of it—the voice, the song selection, the personality—have made him a formidable force, and Blake is positioned to carry it all forward. Nashville’s finest writers bring him their best songs, experience has only honed his chops in the studio and on stage, and he intends to keep going with The Voice.
“It’s hard to talk about a 20 #1 greatest hits package without going, ‘I could call it a day and feel good about it,’” he says. Fortunately, for his fans everywhere, he adds, “But I’m not going to.”