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Blake Shelton Is Firing on All Cylinders

Blake Shelton’s on his way to the airport, cramming an interview into a Sunday afternoon while heading from Los Angeles to perform a concert in Oregon. He’s had a busy few days: taping The Voice, chatting with TV writers during a media day on the set and doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fundraiser.

“It didn’t seem like much until you say it like that,” he says in his Oklahoma twang. “It’s what I’m used to. I work really hard, but when I’m off work, you can forget even trying to get a hold of me.”

Off-time seems to be a luxury these days, with Shelton mentoring new talent as coach and judge on NBC’s hit singing show The Voice, wrapping up a concert tour of the U.S. and Canada, and kicking off his latest album, BRINGING BACK THE SUNSHINE, in September on Warner Records Nashville.

Shelton’s aw-shucks demeanor, cowboy good looks and mellow baritone voice have served him well as he’s become one of the most popular entertainers today. “Blake’s a perfect storm: natural talent, charming, full of charisma, smart, and he can write, play and sing well,” says The Boston Globe’s pop music and TV critic Sarah Rodman. “And he aligns himself with great people.”

More than 20 years into a career capped with country music’s top awards and a record-setting string of No. 1 hits, Shelton has developed solid business acumen. But to hear him tell it, his career is held together with spit and baling wire.

“I don’t think I ever thought of the business of country music; I just thought about the music of Nashville. I don’t think I was smart enough to even consider what that meant,” Shelton says. “Then you wake up one day and, Oh crap, I’m not making a living.”

The son of a used-car dealer and a beauty-shop owner, Shelton had such a love for music that his mother was prompted to enter him in beauty pageants just so he could perform. “I would have to come out and do the damn evening wear, and whatever [the girls] had to do, I had to do in order just to be in the talent portion,” he said in interviews years later.

Two weeks after his high school graduation and just shy of his 18th birthday, Shelton hightailed it to Nashville intent on launching a music career. He received guidance from the late songwriter and music promoter Mae Axton—mother of late singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton—and songwriter Bobby Braddock.

But it took a while for the small-town boy to realize how things worked. “I was so simple-minded that when I heard a lawyer say, ‘Your take of each album is $1,’ I thought if it went gold, I’d make $500,000! I never considered the percentages that go to managers, taxes, repaying money to the label—that’s how naïve I was,” Shelton says. “It’s expensive to have a career.”

In 2001 Shelton’s self-titled debut album did go gold, and his debut single from that album, “Austin”, became a five-week Billboard chart-topper. Shelton seemed to be well on his way, until he hit a few bumps with his second album, The Dreamer, in 2003. At this point, he felt his career “slipping away.”

Although the first single on the album, “The Baby,” hit No. 1, the rest did not fare as well, and critics roundly panned the work that eventually hit gold. “Radio was not playing my music, and if you let that stuff eat you alive, it will devour you,” Shelton says. “You have to continue to do the best you can, and do what makes sense to you. I think that’s the answer to almost any problem you have in life.”

He says when he looks at 80 percent of the artists who have come and gone quickly, there’s a common theme. “They started to put it on autopilot, turning out the same-sounding records, and people lost interest,” Shelton says. “I was guilty of that.”

But not for long.

In 2010 Shelton had three hit albums and won the Country Music Association’s top male vocalist award. He also got to show off his funny side—and broadened his fan base—by co-hosting the American Country Music Association Awards with singer Luke Bryan.

His roll continued. A year later he landed a gig on NBC’s The Voice that would “strap a rocket on his career,” in the words of The Boston Globe’s Rodman. He would also marry another rising star, country singer Miranda Lambert.

But Shelton worked to earn his good fortune. The first few years of promoting his albums, he visited almost every country station in the U.S.—about 150—and still maintains good relationships with them to this day.

“In the beginning, it was about how do we master his traditional music on country radio and exploit his personality, which was one of his strongest assets,” says Peter Strickland, executive vice president and general manager of Warner Music Nashville.

Carrying out that strategy was easy for Shelton. “I’ve just always been myself, and that’s the thing that has always carried me through,” he says. “Just being open and honest and not pretending to be anyone other than what I am.”

Strickland, former senior vice president of brand management and sales, has been with Shelton almost from the beginning of his career. He says the first point of business was to get Shelton on track with a string of hits. With that accomplished around the third or fourth album, Strickland says, other avenues quickly opened.

“A pivotal point for Blake, and he latched on to it in a big way, was the emergence of the social media scene,” Strickland says. “It opened more doors for him, which led to TV.”

Shelton’s irreverent Twitter posts both delighted and inflamed readers, making him a favorite on the social medium with more than 7 million followers. Shelton perfected the “drunk tweet,” which tells a funny anecdote about something stupid he’s done, and he might be the only country artist to joke about having “man crushes.”

Even Shelton is surprised by the pace of technology and the impact it can have. He tells a story about Strickland presenting him with a plaque when his first album went platinum. On the plaque was the image of a cassette. “A cassette tape! Holy [smoke]! People didn’t even have CDs back then. I love that now everything gets downloaded to an iPhone,” he says.

Once he joined The Voice in 2011, Shelton’s social media following exploded, sending sales spiraling upward, as well. Just three months after the show premiered, his new single “Honey Bee” received 138,000 downloads, according to Billboard magazine, and set a new record for the fastest gold certification by a male country singer.

Show producer Mark Burnett knew Shelton’s star was on the rise, and he also needed someone who was savvy in the ways of the business of entertainment. “He had done his work in Nashville, he understood the demands of TV, and when I met him, I was immediately struck by what a nice human being he was,” Burnett says “He was very funny, very quick with the comebacks and jokes, so it was really a blessing for us.”

Burnett credits much of the success of The Voice to the chemistry between Shelton and fellow judge Adam Levine of the band Maroon 5.

“In many ways, this show is part competition show and part sitcom,” says Burnett, a Hollywood veteran whose credits include Survivor and The Bible. “That concept is anchored by Blake and Adam sitting in those chairs on either end of the panel.”

But there’s more contributing to Shelton’s success, Burnett says. “When an agreement is reached to work this many days and do this amount of publicity, [he and his team] fulfill it completely and are 100 percent engaged, thoughtful, early and ready to go,” he says. “In the end, success is never incidental. There’s always some luck involved, but you don’t repeat success over and over if you are not smart, engaged and focused.”

Strickland of Warner Music Nashville agrees: “[Shelton] always selects what best fits him and his brand, and he works really hard, and always has.”

When he thinks of the kind of career he’s always wanted, Shelton cites the longtime successes of George Strait and Reba McEntire, whom he counts as role models and friends.

“On the artist’s side, you have to count on making money out on the road. I try not to blow money, and if you are trying to be smart, you make your money while you can,” Shelton says of the fickle business. “I want to be one of those guys with a long career. But when my career in television is done and I’m not the hot guy on radio, I’m still going to perform and play on a bar stool somewhere.”

Shelton should be able to rely on a considerable nest egg if it comes to that. He holds the record for most consecutive No. 1 country singles—12 in a row (and 17 overall). Just finishing his Ten Times Crazier tour, which included sold-out shows at Chicago’s Wrigley Field (40,000 fans), he’s only the fourth country artist to have played the 100-year-old ball park. He also sold out Madison Square Garden and the Hollywood Bowl during the tour.

At a press party for The Voice not long ago, Shelton told reporters that he never forgets who brought him to the dance. He says he doesn’t plan on using The Voice as a stepping stone to other TV work.

“I’m standing here in L.A. talking about a television show, but I’m just a country singer, and when it’s all over, I’m not going to stay in L.A. I’m going to concentrate on being a country music artist, and anything that happens outside of that just happens,” Shelton says. “Maybe that’s why things come to me, because I take care of things that are most important to me and leave everything else.”

Shelton’s likability factor has made him a much-in-demand commodity when it comes to hawking products. But even when a Fortune 500 company comes calling, Shelton believes he has to think about what makes sense for him. “For me to get involved with a Pizza Hut or a Pepsi, either it ties into what I do musically or has to be stupid fun,” Shelton says. “I never really set out to have a brand or an image, so I guess that just became my brand: I’m honest, I drink and I say [stuff] that is politically incorrect all the time.”

In fact, Shelton says fellow Voice judge Levine often tells him that if he did and said half of what Shelton does, “they would be burning my albums in the streets.”

“People roll their eyes, but that’s about it,” Shelton says. “I can honestly say I don’t care what people think about me as long as my family is happy with me and I’m happy with myself. You can’t be an artist and be afraid.”

In reality, for many years, Shelton was afraid of addressing a very painful topic—the death of his 24-year-old brother Richie in a car accident when Shelton was just 14. The accident also claimed the lives of his brother’s girlfriend and her son, who was buried on his fifth birthday.

After years of suppressing his grief, Shelton finally opened up about it to Lambert, and together they wrote a song inspired by the event. They decided that Lambert would record the song titled “Over You” because Shelton believed it would be too difficult for him to perform in concert. “Over You” won the Country Music Association Song of the Year Award in 2012.

Lambert also performed it with Shelton in a live segment of The Voice in May 2013 as a tribute to victims of tornadoes that ripped through central Oklahoma, killing more than 20 people and injuring almost 400 in Moore. The couple’s home is a little more than 100 miles away on a farm in tiny Tishomingo, Okla.

Shelton appeared tearful as he accompanied his wife on guitar and sang harmony during the chorus. “You went away—how dare you? I miss you./ They say I’ll be OK, but I’m not going to ever get over you.”

Lambert glanced at her husband only briefly, her eyes softening as if to reassure him.

“That ended up being a big moment on The Voice,” Shelton says. “If not for Miranda, I would’ve never sat down and written that song.”

Shelton and Lambert seem to move easily between their professional and private lives, tweeting I-love-yous and jokes back and forth, and flirting with each other at awards events.

“My life’s an open book,” Shelton says. “I’m always asked what is something about me that no one knows. They know everything.”

During their limited time off together, they like to hang out on their farm, where he indulges her love of animals; he purchased a colorful Gypsy Vanner for her 30th birthday last year after learning about the light draft horse breed from their pal, singer Kelly Clarkson.

Creatively, Shelton and Lambert are good for each other, he says. “I think we feed each other’s fire. Miranda bounces things off me. Sometimes she takes my advice and sometimes she doesn’t. With me it is the same thing.”

Shelton says he always seeks Lambert’s opinion about his songs before recording. “And sometimes I think she’s wrong,” he says, laughing. “But if I’m on the fence, sometimes she’s the tie-breaker.”

Her most important role in his career, though, has been in encouraging him to write music. “Just getting me off my ass and saying, ‘You are good at this. You can do it. Just focus,’ and that’s been a problem for me, to just focus. She’s made me a better songwriter and has been a coach for me in the songwriting world.”

All in all, Shelton knows life is good, and he counts himself fortunate to have had the kind of success he’s had in the last few years. That may have something to do with the positive tone of his new album, BRINGING BACK THE SUNSHINE.

“The roll I’m on is just a moment in time when things are firing on all cylinders,” Shelton says. “Television, records. I don’t want to stop and think about it. It’s like having Christmas every day.” 

Go behind-the-scenes with The Voice contestants to see what Blake Shelton is like as a coach. Hint: His team members gain a mentor for life.

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