Blake Shelton Recalls “Austin,” “Ol’ Red” and Early Days in Nashville (Part 2 of 2)

"Hillbilly Bone" Singer Prefers Releasing New Music Instead of Greatest Hits

Blake Shelton‘s new album, Hillbilly Bone, contains just six songs. However, he’s planning to release another six-song album in late summer. Taking a cue from his record label’s “Six Pak” concept, we’ve already published part one of an interview from his recent visit to CMT. In this second half, the upbeat singer reminisces about his first big hit, his surprising signature song and why his early days in Nashville were just like a country song.

CMT: What was your daily routine like when you moved to Nashville in 1994?

Shelton: When I first hit town, there wasn’t much going on in my daily routine. I had about a two-week job there working for Mae Boren Axton, painting her house. [Axton, the mother of singer-songwriter Hoyt Axton, wrote Elvis Presley‘s “Heartbreak Hotel.”] Eventually I got a job working at a publishing company, Balmur Music, which was a company that Anne Murray was a co-owner in, as a tape copy guy. Eventually I got fired from that job. You know, after being fired and not being able to keep a job through the years … there’s no telling how many jobs I went through — four or five. At that point, I had worked my way into the community enough that I started singing a lot of demos and eventually got hired as a staff writer at Sony Tree Publishing. But my days were a country song. I would wake up in the morning, hung over from the night before, especially at that age. I’d try to write a song and do it all over again that night.

How many songs have you listened to in the last 10 years?

Oh! I can’t even imagine. I would say of the songs that were pitched to me, realistically between 7,000 and 10,000 songs since I’ve been doing this, which is 10 years now. It never stops. Every day, somebody has a song they want you to hear, and you’re stupid if you don’t listen to it because you never know what you may find. “Austin” was one of those songs that nobody would give a chance because it didn’t come from well-known writers or well-known publishers. Luckily for me, I wasn’t a well-known artist at the time. So you just never know.

How did you find “Austin” then?

Debbie Zavitson at Giant Records somehow ended up with a copy of it. She had never heard of the writers [David Kent and Kirsti Manna] either at the time. They’re well known now, but Debbie was one of those more open-minded A&R people that would listen to anything that came in the mail. She’d give something a chance, at least for a few seconds.

I didn’t realize you were on Giant Records. What was going through your mind when that label closed?

I signed with Giant Records in 1998. It wasn’t until 2001 that they released “Austin,” and two weeks later, they closed, and I ended up as Warner Bros.’ stepchild. … I had been hearing rumors. From the day I signed with that record company, I was excited and had a sick feeling at the same time. You know how Nashville is. The rumors were always flying around: “Giant’s gonna close.” They were true rumors, just way ahead of their time. Luckily, I was able to finish my album before the company closed. There were a handful of people in that company who really had my back, including a promotion guy named Fritz Kuhlman. Fritz knew that Giant was going to close, and they had scheduled that my single was going to be released in April or something. He purposely had them print up the single and mailed it to radio two months early so that radio would already have the single. He had enough guys starting to play it so that when Giant did close, the song had already charted. He knew that if I had anything going, Warner Bros. would probably take the project on. I’ll never forget that. It was pretty cool they did that. [The song spent five weeks at No. 1 in 2001.]

I was wondering why you don’t have greatest hits album. Do you get that question a lot?

Not from you guys [in the news media], but a lot from the record company and people on the team. It seems to be something that comes up a lot: “Should we do a greatest hits? Do we not do a greatest hits?” I think we could do one now, but I’ll tell you what I’ve found: People make their own greatest hits [compilations] these days off the Internet, and there’s no point in us packaging a greatest hits and selling it when it’s going to be a limited amount of people who will buy one of those, no matter who the artist is. The only way to really sell them is to put new music on them. I’d rather just put a brand new record out there and let people make their own greatest hits.

At your concerts, “Ol’ Red” still gets a huge reaction. What is it about that song?

“Ol’ Red” is so unique, and it’s definitely stood the test of time. It’s not anywhere close to being one of my biggest radio hits. “Ol’ Red” peaked at No. 12 or No. 13, but for whatever reason, over time, it has become my signature song. In the concerts, from the time I walk onstage until the time I do it, people are shouting, “Sing ‘Ol’ Red,’ damn it! That’s why we came!’” It’s shocking to me, but it’s a good thing to have one of those songs — a signature thing that doesn’t get old. You can have a big hit like “The Baby,” and for a year after it was a hit, people are excited when you play it. Now, as big as that was at radio, “Ol’ Red” is four times as big live, because it never gets old. It’s such a unique song. It’s fun. I don’t know what it is about it but it has that magic.

Read the first part of the interview with Blake Shelton.