By Teri Saylor
Garner, that “water tower” town where Scotty McCreery grew up, is more uptown than small town these days. Wheels turn faster, and the urban hustle and bustle has replaced the peace and quiet McCreery immortalized in his hit song “Water Tower Town.” McCreery himself has gone on to country music stardom, but at heart, he still considers himself a hometown guy.
Growing up, McCreery, 26, was a local celebrity, an unusually talented boy who loved Elvis, country music, baseball, church and his family. Before winning season 10 of American Idol in 2011, he took home top honors in the local Clayton Idol and followed that up with an audition for American Idol, stunning judges Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson with his melodic baritone voice. After awarding him a golden ticket to the Hollywood rounds, Jackson predicted to his fellow coaches that McCreery “was going to have a long career.”
At 16, McCreery was still a minor, and his mother accompanied him throughout the competition. Still he says he missed home, he missed his friends, and he missed the familiarity that comes with small-town life.
“Los Angeles and Hollywood are very different from Garner, and I was very homesick the entire time I was there,” he said in a phone interview from Louisville, Kentucky, where he was preparing to perform a show. “I grew up in Garner. It is all I had ever known, and I have never wanted to live anywhere but North Carolina.”
McCreery still marvels at how that journey nine years ago changed his life, practically overnight. “When I got home, I was struck at how my life had changed since I left for Idol,” he said. “Police accompanied me to class and that scared my friends. It was terrible.”
Eventually the police escorts melted away and McCreery resumed his classes and his spot as pitcher for the Garner Trojans baseball team. Despite throngs of fans who traveled from far and wide to watch him play baseball, and television crews who showed up to do stories about him, he was able to be a regular student his senior year. The biggest change was his busy schedule that had him attending school Monday through Wednesday and touring Thursday through Sunday.
“It was cool coming back, but overwhelming at times,” he said.
Over time the furor died down, and McCreery was able to live a relatively normal life. He attended college at N.C. State University, married his high school sweetheart Gabi Dugal, adopted Moose, a spoiled Labrador Retriever, and established Raleigh as his home base.
He maintains an apartment in Nashville, Tennessee, where he stays when he is in town for business meetings, media events and recording sessions. His record label, Triple Tiger Records, and his management team at Triple 8 Management are headquartered there too.
“When I was a teenager, my original plan was to move to Nashville, go to college there, and enter the music industry,” he said.
But these days, he is content to maintain his home base in Raleigh, where he is only a few miles from his family who still live in Garner. His wife is a pediatric cardiac nurse at Duke University Hospital.
McCreery’s fans can witness his life unfolding in the songs that mean the most to him. From “Five More Minutes,” a chart-topping song inspired by his late grandfather, to “This is It,” a love song for his wife, the songs reflect his growth and the lessons he has learned along the way.
That McCreery would not choose the fork in the road that leads young country artists straight to Nashville, but to live in Wake County instead isn’t unusual for a young man who confidently stays in the lane he carved out for himself and the artist and man he wants to be.
“I have self-confidence because I do life my own way,” he said. “Sure, I take advice from others, but I make my own decisions and march to the beat of my own drum.”
After winning American Idol, McCreery became the first country artist and the youngest male artist to have a debut album enter at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 album chart, when “Clear as Day” was released in 2011. He has since recorded two additional albums and numerous singles, which have sold millions of copies and made McCreery a multi-platinum recording artist.
In 2015, after four years with Universal Records, McCreery was dropped by the label. Shaken but not broken, he performed “Five More Minutes,” a nostalgic song he wrote in memory of his grandfather, at the Grand Ole Opry. It caught the attention of country music radio stations, which provided the song generous airtime and launched it into history. “Five More Minutes” is the first song released without a record label to ever chart on the Country Aircheck/Mediabase Top 50.
He landed his current contract with Triple Tiger Records in 2016. “The music business is a dog-eat-dog world, and there have been ups and downs,” he said. “It was bad when I lost my label and had to climb back up.”
“Five More Minutes” was the first song to chart without a label, but it wasn’t until he secured his Triple Tigers Label and Triple 8 Management that it hit number one, he added. “In this business, you need allies and friends to help you along, but at the end of the day, it’s still all about the songs,” he said.
Despite his commercial success, McCreery says his greatest rewards from his music career come from people who tell him they have been touched by his music.
“When they tell me that “Five More Minutes” helped them deal with their own personal loss of a loved one, or when a guy and a gal tell me they walked down the aisle or danced their first dance to “This is It,” that’s when I feel rewarded,” he said.
McCreery will spend this summer performing with country artist Chris Young on his 29-date “This Town Ain’t Big Enough” tour, and he could not be more excited. His wife and dog will be along for the fun. The tour makes a stop at Coastal Credit Union Music Park at Walnut Creek in Raleigh on August 14.
To many Garner residents who watched McCreery grow up, he is still that little freckle-faced kid who was blessed with a great singing voice. But he begs to differ. “People still see me as that same 16-year-old kid on American Idol on TV nine years ago,” he said. “But that kid has grown up, lived life, gone to college and gotten married.”
Still, he loves making his home here and sees no reason to move away. “This is where I grew up, where my friends are and my family, and the teachers who shaped who I am today,” he said. “This is my safe zone, where I am at peace.”
Teri Saylor is a freelance writer in Raleigh who writes for a variety of global, national and local publications. Reach her at email@example.com.