There is something of a superhero saga at work in Scotty McCreery's career. You can almost hear the dramatic voiceover.
"By day, a mild-mannered college sophomore ... "
Technically it's Mondays and Wednesdays. That's when he attends classes in media studies at North Carolina State University in Raleigh.
"But on weekends, he becomes a country music star ..."
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Bolstered by taking top honors in the 10th season of American Idol in 2011, McCreery became an immediate celebrity. But unlike many of the show's champions, his popularity continues to mount. Last year he was named the top new artist by Billboard magazine, the Academy of Country Music Awards, the American Country Awards and the CMT Awards.
"Able to leap the charts in a single bound ..."
That's not an exaggeration. His new album, See You Tonight, entered Billboard's country charts last week at No. 1. Two years ago, after his Idol win, McCreery became the youngest artist to have a debut album (in his case, Clear as Day, released five days before his 18th birthday) hit the top of Billboard's all-genre Top 200 chart during its first week of release.
Add to that his first run as a headlining concert act and an appearance as recently as last week on The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, and you get a sense of the other life this NC State student leads.
"It's definitely a challenge balancing everything, but it's fun," said McCreery, who performs Friday at Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts in Danville. "We're enjoying it, and I think it will be good for me in the long run. But it's a lot that we're trying to do right now. We're just trying to have a good time with it all."
A native of Garner, N.C., McCreery stood out immediately from the usual array of pop hopefuls on American Idol in 2011, largely because his age (he was 17) didn't match his tough-as-oak baritone or the versed phrasing that came with it.
Perhaps the most mature aspect surrounding McCreery at the time was the realization that American Idol wasn't so much a star-making vehicle as a starting point. Getting the top prize was one thing. Turning his win into a lasting career was entirely up to him.
"I'm here, of course, because Idol worked out for me," he said. "I was going to try and make it in Nashville after college. That was kind of my original plan. Luckily Idol worked out.
"Idol was the launch pad. It was the platform. It was never a career guarantee, but it was a platform for folks to get to know who you are and know your music. So it was a great thing in that respect. And I learned a lot from it. It was like a mini boot camp for the music industry. They really teach you a lot in a short amount of time.
"I was young. I'm still young. But I'm also a little more mature now, I'd say. Still, that kind of foundation gave folks a good understanding of who I was as an artist and a person."
Initial road work for McCreery included a 2011 summer tour with his American Idol co-finalists and an opening-act slot on an extensive arena tour with Brad Paisley that played Rupp Arena last year. All that set McCreery up for his debut as a tour headliner.
"The main thing we've done is try to learn from Brad and from the other tours, from knowing the show we're putting on to the behind-the-scenes stuff and especially the way we treat people," he said. "Brad was really a class act and a really respectable guy, so that's what we're going for, because you hear the horror stories of acts that are just tough to work with. That isn't what we want to be. We want to be easy to work with and have folks excited to be with us."
If McCreery wanted to emulate the business acumen of pros like Paisley in setting up his current tour, he also knew what he didn't want when it came time to make See You Tonight. He sought to avoid the dreaded "sophomore slump" that hits artists under pressure to surpass the commercial success of a hit debut.
"For me, I think it was kind of the opposite situation," he said. "With this record, it was a lot more comfortable. I wouldn't say it was easy, but it was a lot more comfortable just because we had so much time to work with. For the first record, we came out of Idol, went on the Idol tour and were trying to squeeze in a record while doing all that. That was tough. But with this one, we really had time. We sat down and really made sure we talked about what we wanted to do with this record and didn't just start singing songs to get a record out really quick.
"The whole career has become very manageable. I don't think it has really settled. But we're kind of keeping the system in place. We are understanding the whole thing better.
"We come home for three days a week and then head out four days a week. It's not difficult. You can't help but worry about the little things. But we know the big stuff. We've got an understanding of what is time important and what is really urgent, and what is not. We understand the whole industry a little better, so that's making things easier. It's still busy. It's a 24/7 deal, but we keep learning how to handle it."
IF YOU GO
When: 8:30 p.m. Nov. 1
Where: Centre College's Norton Center for the Arts, 600 W. Walnut St., Danville
Tickets: $60-$85. Available at 1-877-448-7469 or Nortoncenter.com.
12 SEASONS OF 'AMERICAN IDOL' WINNERS
Season 1: Kelly Clarkson
Season 2: Ruben Studdard
Season 3: Fantasia Barrino
Season 4: Carrie Underwood
Season 5: Taylor Hicks
Season 6: Jordin Sparks
Season 7: David Cook
Season 8: Kris Allen
Season 9: Lee DeWyze
Season 10: Scotty McCreery
Season 11: Phillip Phillips
Season 12: Candice Glover