Interview: 'American Idol' Scotty McCreery is not your average college kid

Scotty McCreery

Scotty McCreery performs in concert at Dorton Arena at the North Carolina State Fair last year. (MCT / March 27, 2013)

Scotty McCreery's decision to enroll at North Carolina State University last fall might not have created as big of a buzz in the media as James Franco's and Emma Watson's pursuit of a college education, but that doesn't mean the 2011 “American Idol” winner has been able to blend in easily his freshman year at the Raleigh, N.C., school.

McCreery — whose debut album, 2011's “Clear as Day,” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 and who opened last year for Brad Paisley on Paisley's “Virtual Reality” tour — said his classmates will ask him for photos and autographs before and after class.

When is the last time it happened?

“Yesterday,” McCreery said on the phone from Nashville, Tenn., last week. “It happens pretty frequently. For the most part, they come up to me apologetically, like, ‘So sorry to bother you,' (and I'll say) ‘It's all good, man.' It's before or after class, not during. They know class is class.”

The communications major takes classes Monday through Wednesday and spends the rest of the week touring (his first headlining tour comes to the Paramount Arts Centre in Aurora Thursday and the Star Plaza Theatre in Merrillville, Ind., Saturday) and recording his next album, which he expects to release by early fall. And although he doesn't live in the dorms and have as much of an opportunity to socialize with other students, he does live in an apartment with three roommates and attends Wolfpack basketball games when his schedule permits.

“I'm focusing on the media side,” McCreery said of his major. “I'm always the person getting interviewed, so I wanted to see the other side of things. It's cool. I'm not looking for a backup plan. I want to do music the rest of my life. I more so wanted to get a degree to be a more well-rounded person. And you're only 19 once. I wanted to experience it. I'll revisit (this decision) every year.”

So far, McCreery says, one of his biggest challenges has been his online Spanish course. His grandmother is Puerto Rican but McCreery was raised speaking only English. Asked if he will ever conduct interviews in Spanish, McCreery said, “I did a thing (in English) with Latina magazine. I think they said I was the first person with Latino blood to win ‘Idol.' I embrace it, but that day is a long ways away.”

McCreery emerged on the scene when he flew out to “Idol” auditions in Milwaukee and sang Josh Turner's “Your Man” in front of then-judges Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler and current judge Randy Jackson. (Also at that Milwaukee audition? Wheeling native Haley Reinhart, who finished third, and Oak Forest resident Chris Medina, whose loyalty to his fiancee Juliana, who suffered brain damage in a car accident, made him one of the biggest stars of the audition episodes.) McCreery acknowledges it would have been nice to have current “Idol” judge and country singer Keith Urban on the judges panel when he was competing on the show, if only for his country music expertise, but added “rubbing elbows with Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler wasn't too bad, either.”

Things have worked out just fine for McCreery — never a given for “Idol” winners. Five of the nine winners before McCreery, including Mount Prospect native Lee DeWyze, have been dropped from the original, show-facilitated record deals they signed to. This fact hasn't been lost on the Season 10 champion.

“You never know — especially with ‘Idol,'” McCreery said. “Fortunately, I worked hard and was able to keep my career going, not to say the others weren't working hard. I kind of figured out what worked for me. Also, I was extremely blessed that country fans are so loyal.”

If you're worried McCreery might eventually let his success at such a young age go to his head, he said his friends do a good job humbling him. They bust his chops when his songs come on the radio like only college-age men can. Of course, they're also the same ones enjoying the perks of having a friend on the radio. McCreery says he sometimes brings his friends with him on the road, including to The Grand Ole Opry and the Country Music Awards' Fan Fest week in Nashville.

Speaking of touring, McCreery said he felt better prepared for his current tour, dubbed the “Weekend Roadtrip,” thanks to his shows with Paisley. It was how Paisley carried himself backstage that especially stuck with McCreery. “I learned a few things, including how to treat the crew,” McCreery said. And how has McCreery's approach to performing changed since going from opener to headliner? “When you're the opener, you're the guy getting the crowd warmed up. But when you're the headliner, you're the main dude. People come to see you, and you have to deliver. It's a cool position to be in.”

lgomez@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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