Scotty McCreery: Christmas in AugustThe platinum-selling country 'Idol' champ unveils a holiday album mixing new with (very) old-school fare
By Phyllis Stark
Special to MSN Music
Just one album into a career, it's unusual for an artist to turn around and release a Christmas set next, but 2011 "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery says he "got lucky," even if he admits he did have to talk his record label into the idea.
"A lot of people have to wait a few years -- a lot of years -- before they ever get to do a Christmas album," he says. "I just wanted to get it out there, and I really put a lot of time and effort into it. Christmas is my favorite holiday."
In keeping with the music industry's strategy of releasing Christmas fare before the Halloween candy has cleared the aisles, "Christmas With Scotty McCreery" arrived in stores on Oct. 16.
The singer, who just turned 19 this month, grew up loving Christmas music and performing it in school and church, so he was eager to get an album of his favorites into the marketplace. With his first studio album, "Clear as Day," having been certified platinum for sales of more than 1 million units just three months after its release last year, McCreery had a little leverage in gently twisting the arms of executives at his label. Once they agreed to the idea, he says, "They had my back on it, so it's been really nice to have their support."
Recording the album in August, during a scorching heat wave in Nashville, posed a second set of challenges, which McCreery and his team overcame by immersing themselves in holiday trimmings.
"We had Christmas lights, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, Christmas hats; it was Christmas-y in there," says McCreery with a grin. "That made it easy on us, as long as we didn't go outside."
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Plenty of country stars are releasing Christmas albums this holiday season, including Blake Shelton and Lady Antebellum, but McCreery went out of his way to make sure his set contained an extra element: the reason for the season. He picked quite a few songs that focused on the holiday's religious aspects, including "O Holy Night," "The First Noel" and "Mary Did You Know?"
"That's the main reason we celebrate," he says of the holiday's spiritual base. "The presents and stuff, that's good and fun and all, but there would be no Christmas without the birth of Christ. Going to church on Christmas Eve, we'd read the Christmas story out of Luke and we'd always make sure we paid mind to that and didn't just get caught up in Santa Claus or the worldly Christmas."
That same focus applied to the two original songs McCreery chose for the 11-song set: "Christmas in Heaven" and "Christmas Comin' Round Again."
"For a Christmas original, you either want to have a holly, jolly one that makes you want to dance, or one that really touches you," says McCreery, who picked two that fell into the latter category. "They had a lot of meaning."
That's not to say the album is all serious. It also contains fun standards like "Let It Snow," a blusey "Santa Claus Is Back in Town," an energetic "Holly Jolly Christmas" and a laid-back, vibey take on "Jingle Bells," among other well-loved classics.
McCreery says selecting the songs to include was the hardest part of making the album.
"I can't tell you how many hours I spent sitting there with a paper and looking at different albums, and different lists of Christmas songs and scratching them out, erasing some, and making marks trying to decide which ones I wanted to do," he says. "But I think we got the 11 right. We got the ones that I really wanted to put on the album."
Several had a history for the young singer. In fifth grade, he sang "O Holy Night" at a holiday concert. And for several years, McCreery and a pal teamed up to perform "Mary Did You Know?" at their church's Christmas Eve services. That made those songs more meaningful to him when it came time to narrowing down the choices of album cuts. With that album finished, McCreery is now in the process of picking songs for his next studio album, as well as trying to write some songs himself. The pressure will be on for the Academy of Country Music's reigning New Artist of the Year to top his own accomplishments.
"Clear as Day" debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 and Top Country Albums charts, making McCreery the youngest male artist in history to open at the top of the all-genre chart with a debut release. The album also racked up the highest sales of any country solo album released last year, and held the No. 1 spot on the Billboard Top Country Albums chart for six weeks.
The gold record he received from his record label after "Clear as Day" sold its first half million units is part of a new exhibit of McCreery career memorabilia on display through Jan. 4, 2013, at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh, not far from McCreery's hometown of Garner. Among the other items he donated to the museum is the outfit he wore when he sang his final duet, with Tim McGraw, on "Idol" last year.
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In addition to staying focused on his career, McCreery is enjoying his freshman year at North Carolina State University, where he is majoring in communications and living in an apartment with some friends.
"It's going great," he says of his first semester. "I'm enjoying it, just getting out there and having a little freedom, living with the boys and studying and stuff."
He's arranged his full, 12-hour course load into just two days a week, Mondays and Wednesdays. And while that has given him the freedom to continue touring with Brad Paisley, as well as coming to Nashville for appointments and other business, there's one big downside. "All my quizzes and tests are due on the same day," he says, rolling his eyes.
McCreery was recently ranked in the top five for the second year in a row in Billboard magazine's lists of top artists under the age of 21, and he says he's proud to be representing the music he loves on that list of music's most powerful minors.
"It's cool for me, especially, to represent country," he says. "Anytime you can really wave the flag for country music I try to do it. Hopefully I can wave the flag well."