NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Performing in front of millions of people for the first time, beating out thousands of other highly talented competitors, defeating nerves and self-doubt — winning "American Idol" may have been the easy part.
Now Scotty McCreery has to figure out how to turn victory into a high-level career.
One doesn't always translate into other. But the 17-year-old isn't thinking of his first post-"Idol" album, "Clear As Day," as a make-or-break situation. He prefers the long view. He wouldn't mind being the next superstar alum of "Idol," successfully transitioning in the way multiplatinum stars Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson have.
If not, though, he's still going to play baseball in the spring. He's still going to college in a year. He's still ... Scotty. And superstar status — or lack thereof — won't change much.
"People, they bring that up a lot," McCreery said. "For me it's not so much about that aspect. The other 'Idols,' they have a lot of success in what they're doing. They get to do music every day for the rest of their lives. They may not have the most mainstream, big success, but they're still doing what they love. And we talked to some of the 'Idols' when they came to the show about that. Right now, we're doing what we feel's right."
McCreery, who turns 18 on Sunday, had a fairly simple and normal life until about a year ago. From small town Garner, N.C., he was a pitcher and a member of the chorus with an unbelievably deep voice who occasionally participated in small talent shows.
A year later he's a TV star, a veteran of a national tour and he and his family face a myriad of decisions — from which songs to record to complicated financial dealings — that could have a profound effect on his life for decades to come.
Way more worrisome than whether he can hit the high notes.
"There's never been a teenage boy to really make it in country music so there's no formula for what he should do," Scotty's mother, Judy, said. "So I do sit back and wonder if this is the right move, are these the right songs, is this the right atmosphere? Things have been chugging along and all the right things are happening and all the right people are in his path, so I'm just trying to let go and let nature take its course. Something's working."
While competing in Los Angeles, McCreery met most of the former "Idol" winners. A few brought gifts. All came bearing advice.
"A lot of it was enlightening," McCreery said. "For the most part they had one common theme: Stay true to yourself and don't let the business get to you because it's a completely different world out there than this 'Idol' bubble and the life we knew before. They said just stay true to your boots and it will all be good."
McCreery figured out one part of the formula quickly. He focused on the music, picking up quickly on the Nashville mantra: It's all about the song.
He teamed with producer Mark Bright, a veteran who has worked with Underwood, Reba McEntire, Rascal Flatts, Luke Bryan and Billy Ray Cyrus, and the call went out to Nashville's songwriting community. They were looking for songs written specifically for McCreery that would reflect his sensibility.
He got songs from notable writers like Brett James, Casey Beathard, Craig Wiseman and Keith Urban, who suggested his old song "Walk in the Country" from his early career in The Ranch. Like all the others, McCreery gave it close consideration before recording it.
As those former winners suggested, he stayed true to his boots.
"I'd get a lot of outside opinions and stuff — Does this feel right? Does it sound good?" Scotty said. "Ultimately it has to feel right to me and it had to feel good to me so I didn't have to fake it when I was recording it. All these songs on this album are 100 percent me."
Each of the 12 songs comes from a youthful perspective or voice, and McCreery says they just naturally fell into categories of love — romantic love, family love, love for the place you come from.
These are themes that will be familiar to his fans, who turned out in record numbers to help with his victory. More than 39 million people watched the final episode and the 122.4 million votes cast for the finale set a new mark.
Brian Wright, Universal Music Nashville senior vice president of A&R, thinks those numbers might just be an early indicator that McCreery will be very popular, "if he's not already a superstar. I think in the public eye that he is."
The trick is to build on that, and Wright thinks that will come naturally. He believes McCreery has the "it" factor stars need to build and keep a large audience.
"I didn't get to meet him until the week before the final," Wright said. "All of that on TV was really good. But once I finally met him, I got it. Sometimes in this business we get jaded about making sure everything's perfect — the artist, the look, the sound — when it really is just about connecting to your audience. I think Scotty does a great job of that and what you see on TV is what you get."
Easy-going. Friendly. Sometimes his mom wishes he wasn't quite so accessible.
"Like today he walked out of the bathroom at the airport and there were two ladies waiting to take his picture," Judy said. "I went, 'Oh, really at quarter of 7 in the morning? Can't this boy get some relief?' But the show creates that image that this person's like in your family. They feel like they know them. So Scotty's like, 'Be nice, mom.' He's like, 'You know I'm famous.'"
And she responded: "Well you're not famous to me, you're just Scotty."