Home Entertainment Scotty McCreery on Cigars, Country, and New Album ‘Rise and Fall’

Scotty McCreery on Cigars, Country, and New Album ‘Rise and Fall’

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Scotty McCreery on Cigars, Country, and New Album ‘Rise and Fall’

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Scotty McCreery knows that he shows up carrying a lot of baggage. He’s the American Idol kid, the preternaturally youthful, aw-shucks redhead who, at 17, won the reality singing competition back when it still mattered, and dropped the inoffensive debut single “I Love You This Big.” That reputation, polished and squeaky clean, tells some cynical country fans all they need to know about the type of music he makes. Surely, Scotty McCreery can’t do hard country.

McCreery, sipping on a Michter’s bourbon, two cubes, shakes his head. Straightening up in his chair in the bar of the Virgin hotel on Nashville’s Music Row, he says he’s heard it all before.

“They think, ‘Oh, I know this kid,’ but they got to know me when I was a teenager,” he says, letting some rare heat escape through his cool veneer. “Hey, little Scotty has grown up, and he’s a man and he likes to go have a cold beer on Friday with the boys.”

McCreery is 30 now, and on his new album, Rise & Fall, out this week, he makes a convincing case that he can do traditional country — from barnburners to ballads — as well as some of the greats. Over 13 tracks, the North Carolina native sings about the cruel passing of time, crises of conscience and faith, and drinking a whole lot of beer. It’s a country album every bit as legit as Jamey Johnson’s That Lonesome Song — McCreery’s favorite — or Garth Brooks’ In Pieces, or Randy Travis’s Storms of Life. McCreery just wants you to give it a chance.

“There’s a lot of layers to me that people don’t know,” he says. “Hopefully they hear this record and get to know me.”

Rise & Fall, with 12 of its songs co-written by McCreery, offers a better chance of that than an interview does. Sitting with McCreery, it’s apparent that the strict American Idol media training still holds its grip, at least when he’s talking about the peaks and valleys hinted at in the album’s title. He references 2016, the year he was dropped by Universal Music Group Nashville, as the “worst year of my life,” but doesn’t offer much past that until we start casually bullshitting about his favorite time-killers — cigars and golf — and he begins to loosen up.

“I don’t like a cigar — I love a cigar,” he says. McCreery keeps a few hundred “sticks,” as he calls them, in a humidor at his home in Raleigh and a smaller cache in a little desktop humidor at his apartment in Nashville. “My granddaddy always smoked a pipe and he had a bird book, and I’d sit next to him and we’d look out his den and watch birds while he smoked. That’ll be old man Scooter one day, just sitting in the den smoking my cigar.”

He plays a lot of golf too (he’s a six handicap), and got an idea for one of Rise & Fall’s most twangy tracks while on the course with buddies. “And Countin’” stemmed from an offhand remark he made when asked what number beer he was crushing: “Four, and counting!” he shouted back, and immediately thought, “There’s a country song.”

“And Countin’,” like Rise & Fall’s rollicking opener, “Little More Gone,” and the irresistibly clever “Can’t Pass the Bar,” all have elements of Brooks’ “Ain’t Going Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)” in their DNA. They’re unassailable good-time drinking songs, and McCreery delivers them with a natural ease.

That wasn’t the case in 2015, when he released what would be his last single for Mercury Nashville, the schlocky bro-country of “Southern Belle.” It was decidedly not a Scotty McCreery song, and it tanked.

“It was rock bottom there for a minute,” he says, nodding back to that worst year of his life.

“Before I ever had a Number One, it was like, ‘What’s the trend? Who’s the hottest writers in town? How do we get the radio hit?’’ he says of the uncertain road that led to “Southern Belle,” a song he didn’t write. “I think back to what was hot on the radio back when I wasn’t having a lot of success, and it wasn’t stylistically what I do well. I could try to go that route to get a little more edgy, but man, I just want to sing a country song.”

McCreery did that by signing with Nashville indie Triple Tigers, doubling down on songwriting, and releasing the 2018 album Seasons Change, which included the country ballad “Five More Minutes.” It became his first Number One and ultimately paved the way for Rise & Fall.

He sees the new album as arriving at the perfect moment, when country music and its storytelling tradition are booming. McCreery says he loves what both Beyoncé and Post Malone are doing to expand country’s audience.

“There’s more eyeballs than ever on country music, and if somebody goes to listen to the new Beyoncé album — which I think is great — and somehow through the algorithm they find out who George Jones or Merle Haggard is? How cool is that?” McCreery says.

He’s equally bullish on the new AI-assisted song by Randy Travis, who recently joined him onstage to induct McCreery as a member of the Grand Ole Opry. McCreery is concerned about unchecked AI voice tech and says he supported Tennessee’s new ELVIS law to protect musicians from unauthorized AI voice clones, but admits he cried when he heard Travis’s “Where That Came From.”

“I think there needs to be limits today on AI and what they can do,” he says, “but for a unique situation…[that lets] Randy Travis get his voice back, and he was there in the studio and put his stamp on that song and believes in the song, then by God, let’s do it.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFiPBVOpuZM

His new album’s standout, “No Country for Old Men,” is a track that Travis himself could have recorded. Drawing its title from the Cormac McCarthy novel and subsequent Coen Brothers film, it centers on a crusty old dude in a bar, drinking red-label Bud and wondering where all the real country songs have gone. In lesser hands, it could be trite and cranky, but McCreery infuses it with a certain sadness and defiance: “Those days are gone and thеy ain’t comin’ back again/There’s no country for old men,” he sings.

McCreery’s not quite the old man of the lyrics yet, but he often feels that way when mingling with his peers on the road. He started his career when he was 16, which makes him a veteran among singers who may have just recently become stars on TikTok.

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“It’s a weird feeling,” he says. “I’m the guy that, at least professionally, I’ve been doing it the longest, but I’m also still the young one.”

As Rise & Fall suggests, he’s also the confident one. Draining the last of his bourbon, McCreery gets ready to head back to his nearby apartment to watch his Carolina Hurricanes play on TV. Maybe he’ll even smoke a cigar.

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