It’s a facetious notion, to be sure, but Blake Shelton laughs at the suggestion that his new album is the first concept album by a solo country artist since Garth Brooks released In the Life of Chris Gaines.
“You know, I hate to call it a concept album, but I really do think that’s kind of what it has become,” Shelton tells CMT.com. “If the Chris Gaines album was a failure for Garth, by my standards, that would be a huge success. And so I’ll take that.”
His new album, Blake Shelton’s Barn & Grill — that’s right, Barn — arrived in stores Tuesday (Oct. 26). Produced by legendary songwriter Bobby Braddock (“He Stopped Loving Her Today”), the project’s underlying theme is drinking, although the music covers a wide range of emotions ranging from “Some Beach” (the upbeat single that serves as the opening track) to “I Drink” (a blunt confession that closes the CD).
During a recent visit to CMT, Shelton talked about the new album and offered his typically candid thoughts about his career and the music industry.
CMT.com: Alcohol really is the theme of the album.
Shelton: I think nine or 10 of the 11 songs refer to drinking at some point. Even “Some Beach” mentions margaritas, so it’s always in there, it seems like. We didn’t set out to do that … because I’ve been making this record for about 12 years and didn’t even know it. I’ve been holding these songs back. When we sat down and listened to all of them — and even the new ones that we recently found — it’s like, “Man, this is just a beer drinking, drunk, go-to-the-bar type of album.” Which is exactly what I set out to do. I wanted to make it just a country album, something that fits on a jukebox anywhere. So, it just developed into that for whatever reason. I don’t know why, but … that’s not the key thing to the album. I think the state of mind is the key to the album.
Did you and Braddock discuss how drinking songs have become hard to find in contemporary country music?
Yeah, I mean we’ve talked about that a lot. … I think it’s Nashville’s fault probably, because a lot of times we gear ourselves towards radio and what they’re going to play. And the first thing we’ve got to do to get a song safe is take out anything that isn’t a part of that soccer mom’s life that we’re all somehow taught to cater to. To me, when I think of country music fans, I think of my sister-in-law who goes out to the bar and two-steps or my dad who likes Merle Haggard and Waylon Jennings. … And I start thinking, “Wow, you know, these people are still country music fans. There’s just not a lot out there for them anymore.” My music to this point has had a little bit of the safeness in it, but it has also had some of the “being out there” a little bit, too. I mean, “Ol Red,” certainly: A guy kills his wife and her lover. You know what I’m saying? I found out that I can kind of get away with it, but if I can only get away with it a little bit, I’m still OK with that, because I would rather offend a few people in order to gain more fans than just play it safe, because I don’t really know what you can hope to accomplish by doing something like that.
There have been times in your career where radio has tried to dictate which singles you should release.
They’ll do that, and there’s a reason that country radio does that. They come to me, “Look, Blake, this is what works for you, and this is what works for us.” I certainly couldn’t agree with them more. But you reach a point where you say, “You know what? Even if this doesn’t work for me, I’ve got to try it — just to know for myself — and I need ya’ll’s help.” Country radio has been awfully good to me. I’ve had my share of songs that absolutely did not work, but I also had some big records, too. I’ll be the last guy to sit here and complain about radio. Everybody is just trying to do what they think is right for their station and for their market.
But you’ve got to do what’s best for you.
Right. And sometimes what I’m doing doesn’t fit in, but I’m OK with that, because I know that going into it. But musically, at some point, I have something to say. … And whether it fits in or not, I don’t know, but I’ve got to get it out of my system.
Paul Overstreet wrote two songs on the album. Are both of them new?
“Some Beach,” as far as I know, is brand new. “Cotton Pickin’ Time” is probably 20-something years ago. There was a group called the Marcy Brothers. You remember those guys? They cut that song, and Paul told me that it started to be a single, and there was some kind of controversy with them and the record company, and it just went away. He couldn’t believe that somebody remembered the song, but to me it was always like, “Man, that’s it. That’s good stuff there.”
These days, Overstreet seems to have a reputation for being rather straight-laced in his attitudes. It’s kind of weird to see his name on songs for an album that focuses on drinking.
On an album by a guy that is endorsed by Satan? Is that what you’re saying? (laughs) No, you know, Paul will be the first to tell you he had his wilder days. And not that he has gone back to that, but it seems like his writing these days … is not so focused on where he is at with his life. I think he’s more focused on just country music, in general. I may not know what I’m talking about, but just listening to his new stuff that he’s writing, I think he’s just letting it go.
“Goodbye Time” was originally recorded by Conway Twitty. What made you decide to cover it for the album?
A lot of people say, “Did you cut that song because you’re a big Conway Twitty fan?” No, I almost didn’t cut the song because I’m a Conway fan. … I think the song went to No. 7. And by anybody else’s standards, that’s a big hit — but not by Conway’s. I mean, if it didn’t go to No. 1, he probably didn’t even work it into his show. (laughs) So I just never felt like that song ever got the credit that it was due. I mean, the melody, lyrically … the emotion that’s in there. And if you can sing it and can tap into that pain, there’s really something there. So, I thought, “Let’s just try this, and if it sucks, we won’t put it on the album.” … So we just tried it, and it seems to be a standout. I hope it doesn’t backfire on us. I just think it’s a great song, and it needs to be heard.
Conway Twitty was a huge star until the day he died, but you don’t hear a lot of people giving him credit for his music and what he accomplished during his career.
Conway Twitty, Earl Thomas Conley, Dan Seals … I mean, how many No. 1’s did Conway have? Forty-something or 50? Earl Thomas Conley had 16 in a row. That’s 16 No.1 hits consecutively, and like you say, you don’t even hear his name anymore. Those guys from the ’80s are my heroes. I don’t know why some artists that had hits years ago are cool — and we all talk about them — and some of them we don’t. I guarantee it, if you get in my truck right now, you’ll hear Conway and Earl Thomas Conley and Dan Seals and the Bellamy Brothers. None of these guys, I feel like, have gotten the credit that they deserve — Jerry Reed, Bobby Bare … people like that.
You were quoted as saying, “I’m starting to become an artist, instead of the guy who can sing all kinds of songs.” It’s somehow encouraging to hear somebody who’s releasing their third album to admit that they’re only now becoming a true artist.
I’ve always known I’m a guy that likes to sing, and there has never been any doubt that I wanted to be a country artist. I got a record deal because of Bobby, and he thought I had a unique sound, and I was willing to sing songs that maybe other people wouldn’t for whatever reason, like “Ol’ Red” or “The Baby.” You know, “That’s too sad” or “That’s too controversial.” Deep down, I was always kind of split on “does that song fit me or does it not,” and if you’re asking yourself that question, then you probably don’t know exactly who you are as an artist. With this album, not that I’m there, but on this album it was a lot easier for me to say, “Yeah, that’s the one there. That’s the idea. That’s what we’re going for.” I didn’t find myself going, “Well, that’s kind of pop, but I’ve got a pop side.” I’m getting there as far as the messages that I’m wanting to send out there and the messages that I want to sit down and write. But probably more than anything, melodically, there’s no way around it that I’m as country as dirt. There’s no way for me to get away from that, and I’m starting to learn that I don’t want to get away from that. Even if it limits me on down the road, I’m OK with that.
What’s the biggest thing you’ve learned during the three years since you released your first album?
I’ve learned that it can very easily turn into a popularity contest. I’ve gotten wrapped up into that thing, you know, where you’re going, “Why am I opening for so and so? I’ve sold more records than him.” You always wonder where your place is and, unless you’re one of the four or five big stars, I don’t think you ever really know. And the only way you know that is because you’re not doing shows with the other three or four that are up there. The biggest thing I’ve learned is to take the business part and just freaking trash it. Just leave it behind. … My job is to figure out whatever is inside of me and make that come out and get that on a CD — and let you guys figure that out, because I can’t change it. And if I try to, I’ll become one of these asshole artists that nobody wants to deal with. You know what I’m saying. I don’t ever want to be that. (laughs) Ever. I don’t!