For most new country artists, making a first appearance on the Grand Ole Opry is an incredibly memorable experience. As for Blake Shelton's first time in May 2001, everything about that night gets a little fuzzy.
"I sang 'Austin' and ... that's all I remember," Shelton said during a recent visit to CMT. "I remember thinking, 'Man, this is my shot.' The song might have been in the [chart] 50s at that point. It had been out for maybe two weeks. And I just remember thinking, 'Here it is, here's my song.' There's no telling what else I did -- probably threw up."
Today, it's hard to imagine anything catching Shelton off-guard, considering his off-color Twitter posts and his weekly off-the-wall countdowns on his website. Amid all the joking around, he's managed to maintain a chart presence with hits like "Ol' Red," "The Baby," "Some Beach," "Home" and "Hillbilly Bone." He's been a solid support act on countless tours but hasn't broken through to the superstar level himself yet. Still it wouldn't be hard to imagine an invitation from the Grand Ole Opry at this stage of the game.
Well, maybe country fans can picture it, but until this year, Shelton wasn't convinced he had what it takes to stand in the famous circle -- the one carved out of the Ryman Auditorium stage where legends like Hank Williams and Patsy Cline once stood during their Opry appearances. Today the circle is the focal point of the stage at the Grand Ole Opry House, which opened in 1974.
At a lunch with Opry manager Steve Buchanan in January, Shelton was asked about his opinion of the Opry and if he'd be interested in joining someday. Shelton replied that there probably wasn't a current artist more interested or more knowledgeable about the history of country music and its artists and songwriters.
And right after that, he said he didn't think he'd fit in.
"I said, 'As I stand back and look at it as a fan, it seems to me more of a family-oriented type show. There are not as many polarizing artists like myself that are members. I don't know if that's by design. And if it's by design, then I probably shouldn't be a member of the Opry,'" Shelton said. "[Buchanan] made a really good point. He said, 'The Opry is just a showcase for popular country artists. We don't care what your stance is. That's not our business. Our business is to showcase country music, and you're a part of it now.'
"After he beat me over the head with that, now all I can think about is hopefully being a member of the Grand Ole Opry one day because it really would mean a lot to me."
Naturally he's taking all of their calls. He's scheduled to perform there on Aug. 17 and Aug. 20. Plus, his new album, All About Tonight, winks at one of the Opry's time-honored rituals -- forgetting the name of that new, young whippersnapper. As a lead-in to one of the up-tempo tracks, Shelton enlisted Porter Wagoner's former pianist, Gordon Mote (who sounds exactly like Wagoner), to record a hilarious, spot-on introduction to some guy named Drake (who, incidentally, sings like just Blake).
For his own Opry debut, Shelton was lucky. He knew segment host Bill Anderson because they wrote for the same publishing company, and Anderson was buddies with Shelton's first producer, songwriter Bobby Braddock.
"We just had enough ties that he wanted to be the guy, because he knew he could say a few words about me where maybe some of the other guys had never even heard of me -- which they hadn't. So he introduced me and he walked straight behind me," Shelton recalled. "He went back and sat on that little fence that's on the stage and watched my entire performance. So it was pretty neat."
He figures he's played the Opry about 20 times since that first night and believes it's a part of his job description as a country singer.
"I always thought, 'Well, you play the Grand Ole Opry on weekends and then you make albums in the middle of the week,'" says Shelton, who is engaged to country singer Miranda Lambert. "Then I learned that it's something that you either want to do or you don't want to do. But if you do want to do it, it's a lot of responsibility. It's a big thing if a country artist, especially a popular touring artist, takes off a weekend to be at the Grand Ole Opry. People don't realize you don't make any money doing that. I think there is a union fee that you go eat dinner with that night, but that's not why people support it. People support it for the history of country music."
Asked what goes through his mind just before he steps on the Opry stage, Shelton replied, "Just the circle out there. I know the Ryman Auditorium is a special place for a lot of different reasons, but for me, the new Grand Ole Opry House will always be a little more special because that's the first time I stood onstage at the Grand Ole Opry. I couldn't wait to get out on that circle and stand in it. I would have been just as happy to have taken the $20 tour of the building to stand in there. It made me feel like if this thing doesn't work out, at least I got to sing on the Grand Ole Opry. How many people can say that?"