Josh Gracin is one busy Marine these days. Besides laboring to promote his recently released debut album, the 23-year-old Michigan native is working as a Corps recruiter, looking for a music publishing deal, adjusting to his family's new home in Nashville, planning a fall tour and preparing for a major appearance on CBS-TV's The Early Show on Sept. 11, the third anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the U.S.
You can almost hear the breathlessness in Gracin's voice when he finally does slow down for a phone interview. You can also hear his 2-year-old daughter, Briana, who's loudly asserting herself in the background.
Gracin's musical journey reached warp speed after his fourth-place finish on American Idol 2 led Lyric Street Records to sign him early this year. His album -- Josh Gracin -- was released on June 15 and sold an astonishing 57,000 copies its first week out. That total rocketed Gracin to the No. 2 spot on Billboard's country charts and to No. 11 on the all-format Billboard 200 ranking. It also marked him as the highest debuting new male artist since Nielsen SoundScan began tracking record sales in 1992.
"I was confident in the music we had on the album," Gracin reflects, "but I was surprised at how well it did." This week, his first single, "I Want to Live," rises to No. 6 and is still moving up.
"I've been going after this since I was 13," Gracin continues. "I went down to Nashville [in 1996-97] and did the whole thing there -- as much as I could. I did the fairs and shows around Michigan when I was growing up. So it's something I've been working on for a while." He even performed on the stage at the Grand Ole Opry House when he was 16 -- a prize for winning another talent contest. During that first foray into Music City, he recorded an eight-song demo to pitch to labels. "But," he says, "things didn't happen."
In September 2000, Gracin joined the Marines, thinking he would put his musical ambitions on hold for the duration. Then in 2003 -- and with his superiors' blessings -- he took his shot on American Idol 2. The ploy netted him legions of fans, even as he lost the grand prize. One of the songs Gracin sang on the talent show was "I'm Movin' On," a 2001 hit for Rascal Flatts. Jay DeMarcus, the group's bass player, saw Gracin's performance and soon after linked him up with their producer, Marty Williams. After the Lyric Street deal came through, Williams became Gracin's producer as well.
Some of Nashville's top songwriters -- including Rivers Rutherford, Brett James, Troy Verges, Terry McBride and Thom Schuyler -- contributed material for Gracin's first album. The singer says he was well into recording the album before he made it known that he, too, is a songwriter. "The second album," he promises, "we'll get something on there." He says he's pleased, though, with the songs he selected, which tend, like his first single, to be proclamations about life rather than stories about living.
Until he leaves the Marines on Sept. 17, Lance Cpl. Gracin will assist in recruiting in the New York City area. Two months ago, he bought a house in Nashville. "We're loving it," he reports. Recently, he was asked to sing three songs on the Sept. 11 edition of The Early Show and is still trying to choose ones that will best match the solemnity of the occasion. In mid-October, he will begin touring with Brad Paisley. "I'm very excited about that," he says. His next single will be "Nothin' to Lose."
Gracin speaks calmly and with little emotion until he's asked if his hometown of Westland, Mich., has named a street after him yet. At that, he chuckles. "Well, I don't know," he says. "Maybe one day."