Viewed from the perspective of his 43rd birthday Tuesday (June 18), it seems like Blake Shelton has always been a national institution — one that’s only slightly less prominent than Mt. Rushmore, Oprah Winfrey’s diet fixations and Willie Nelson’s pigtails.
Besides his media-grabbing presence on The Voice (which he joined at its inception in 2011), he can boast numerous music industry awards, 27 No. 1 singles and 11 albums, five of which have gone platinum (for a million sales) or multi-platinum.
His marriage to Miranda Lambert in 2011 was deemed of such social significance that it was announced on the daily shipboard newspaper of the Queen Mary II luxury liner on its voyage back from England to the U. S.
The tall, affable Oklahoman first entered the Billboard charts in April 2001 with “Austin,” a heart-melting song about two lovers playing phone tag. His light operatic delivery of the lyrics helped propel the single to the top of the charts in August of that year and keep it there for five consecutive weeks, a remarkable achievement for a new artist.
But you wouldn’t have predicted such a buoyant outcome for “Austin” or Shelton had you witnessed, as I did, how his live performance of the song was virtually ignored by the disc jockeys attending the 2001 Country Radio Seminar.
Getting the attention of radio was (and is) of paramount importance to the record labels, so Warner Bros. Records had rented Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium that February to showcase several of its new artists, including Shelton.
As Shelton — then 24, clean-shaven and baby-faced — sang his heart out in a set that spotlighted “Austin,” his soon-to-be breakthrough, the visiting disc jockeys and programmers milled rudely at the back of the hall and in the aisles, talking loudly among themselves and generally making it impossible for those really interested in music to hear what was going on. I recall feeling particularly sorry for Shelton given the sensitivity of his lyrics.
He either looked wistful as he ended his set to a smattering of applause or else I imagined he did.
But I relished seeing him at a Country Radio Seminar cocktail party just two years later. It was held at the Nashville Convention Center, and Shelton stood unmoving at the back of the room as waves of radio people washed up at his feet and asked him to pose with them for pictures. At that time, Shelton’s “The Baby” was resting solidly at No. 1, and the crowd seemed to be hanging onto every word he said. I hoped he savored the moment. Charting well is the best revenge.
This year, Country Radio Seminar presented Shelton its Artist Humanitarian Award — and you can bet everyone was paying attention.