The music business can be a cruel game. Finding success in it can be a long game. Scotty McCreery, your 2011 “American Idol,” knows all about it. He has played it and won, twice.
McCreery, a smooth baritone singer who became a teen-aged TV sensation, had a hit album and two country top 20 singles with his debut album that year. He took home the best new artist trophy at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Two more country hits, “Feelin’ It” and “See You Tonight,” sprang from his follow-up.
From there, though, it was three years with no traction. After one poorly received single, the formulaic “Southern Belle,” didn’t hit on the Billboard radio airplay chart, his record label dropped him in 2016, without releasing the next album.
For McCreery, 25, the worst part was knowing that the best song he ever wrote, “Five More Minutes,” lay in limbo at Mercury Nashville, with no chance to get on the radio. It took a year to buy back material including that song. If you listen to country radio, you know “Five More Minutes.” It topped the Billboard country radio chart in March 2018. So did “This Is It,” nearly a year later. McCreery and his band will be playing those songs and more on Friday, when they headline Elmwood Park Amphitheater.
“I’m having more fun than ever on the road right now,” McCreery said. “You go a few years without songs on the radio, and the shows start getting a little smaller and smaller, and folks aren’t singing like they kinda were. But you get two back-to-back No. 1s, and the cellphones are coming back out. They’re singing along. When the lights are on, you can see the excitement back in their eyes.”
Nashville, Tennessee, country music’s industry town, is built on relationships. McCreery said he had and retains a lot from the Mercury deal. Due to his “Idol” win, he had what he called an “arranged marriage” with three labels at once.
“Two is two many, and three is unheard of,” he said. Losing that deal allowed him the freedom to jump start his career on his own terms.
“I’ve got love for a lot of folks over there,” he said. “But sometimes what seems so bad at the time is actually just a blessing in disguise. We had a few good years over there, but we’re really enjoying it right now for sure.”
The deal, the music and his career direction are better at his new label Triple Tigers – a company that the Thirty Tigers management and distribution business formed with Triple 8 Management and Sony Music.
“I’m loving life,” he said. “The team over there is amazing. They believe in me and the music. They’re just pushing me. It’s a really good thing we’ve got going over there.”
When he sees the old team – particularly the radio people – around town, it’s all good to say hey and do a little catching up.
“The radio folks, especially, and [artists and repertoire], they were on the ground with us, out there at the radio stations and playing conference rooms and riding four hours in a van to go play” promotional sets,” he said.
That’s 99 percent of his former colleagues, he said. “There’s a couple of ‘em there I wouldn’t mind never seeing again, but that’s the way it is with anything in life.”
The funny thing is, the Mercury Nashville, which was tied in with Interscope and “American Idol”-affilated 19 Recordings for McCreery’s deal, wanted radio hits. That’s still the standard in country radio, which has a comparatively large audience (for example, Roanoke’s Star Country FM is the perennial ratings leader, with a lot of listeners). It pushed “Southern Belle,” but was prepared to let “Five More Minutes” lie fallow.
“That’s my favorite part about all of that, too,” McCreery said. “They went a different direction. Again, you talk about freedom, you can put out the singles you want. That’s what Triple Tigers allows me.”
It was a bit of a tangle to get “Five More Minutes” back into his hands.
“There was just a lot of moving parts and a lot of things to figure out, when one of them drops you but the other two don’t want to,” he said. “There was just a lot going on there. We eventually figured it out, and everybody was happy with it.
Ultimately, it was an object lesson in patience.
“You just always gotta be on and be grinding,” he said he has learned during his post-“Idol” years.
“But patience is the No. 1 thing. Even when you get a guy like me, a young guy but you wouldn’t say young artist – been at it like a decade now – but you get on a show like “Idol: and you think it’s gonna be right there right now, then you gotta wait seven years for your first No. 1.
“Everybody’s story is different, but patience is probably one word that’s probably a part of everybody’s story out there in Nashville.”