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A week before his self-titled album debuted at No. 1 on the country charts, Nashville Star winner Buddy Jewell sits in the living room of his new home just outside Nashville, playing guitar and singing "Help Pour Out the Rain (Lacey's Song)."
Next to him is his 3-year-old son Joshua, strumming a plastic mini-guitar and shyly mouthing most of the words to his daddy's hit single. Father and son are playing to their favorite audience --Buddy's wife, TenÃÂ© (pronounced Ten-ay), 13-year-old Buddy III and 9-year-old daughter Lacey, who inspired the song, now a Top 25 hit.
But this living-room audience is one Buddy hasn't seen much lately.
Since winning the nationally televised Nashville Star talent search two and a half months ago, Buddy has seen his life change dramatically. The record deal that eluded him for over a decade is finally his Ã¢ÂÂ and so is the fame, and all the trappings that go with it.
"The weirdest thing is going anywhere and somebody recognizing you," admits the soft-spoken singer. "I'm not being mobbed or anything -- and God knows I don't ever want to get to that point. But I really can't go anywhere in public without somebody recognizing me.
"The other night we stopped somewhere to eat," he recalls. "We were getting ready to leave and the guy behind the counter said, 'Hey, you need to autograph this for my boss.' We were in Wal-Mart recently returning something and the manager at the service desk said, 'You're that country singer guy.' It's just enough [recognition] to make it cool."
Buddy's album made cash registers ring all across America. In the past 12 years, only two other debut albums, LeAnn Rimes' Blue and Billy Ray Cyrus' Some Gave All, sold more copies in their first week.
And "Help Pour Out the Rain" was the highest debut single from a solo artist on the country charts since Wynonna's 1992 hit "She Is His Only Need." But the song almost wasn't Buddy's first single.
"When we got down to the final four [contestants] on Nashville Star, they sent us all into the studio to record what would be our first single, if we won," he explains. "There was some debate between the show's producers and the record label as to which song to put out first -- 'Lacey's Song' or 'Abilene on Her Mind.' It would've been fine for me either way, because I wrote 'em both.
"They gave us the option of recording two tracks, and we recorded 'Help Pour Out the Rain' first."
Then Buddy's producer, Clint Black, intervened. "I said to Clint, 'We've got the opportunity to record "Abilene" if we want to,' " remembers Buddy. "He said, 'Let's not even do it -- that way they don't have a track to fight over. I think "Lacey's Song" is a hit and it ought to be your first single. Besides that, it made my wife Lisa cry.' "
Judging from the public's response to the song, about a little girl's heart-tugging request to help God "pour out the rain" when she gets to heaven, Buddy and Clint made the right choice. "I get tons of e-mails from people who have lost children and other family members," notes Buddy. "The song is helping to minister to them and helping them heal.
"When we were in Knoxville the other night, a guy came up with his daughter and said, 'We watched you all the way through the show. My wife died a week after you won. I just want you to know how much we enjoyed spending that time together watching the show, and how we were rooting for you.' The daughter, who was probably in her late teens, said, 'I just wanted to thank you for making my mom happy. She was really happy that you won.' "
Buddy swallows a lump in his throat. "Yesterday I got a picture of a little girl who'd recently died. Her mom said, 'Now she's helping pour out the rain.' So I sat down and wrote her a note. I couldn't sleep last night. I've been up since four. I've probably answered five or six e-mails like that one, where people lost a loved one."
As the Jewell family convenes in the kitchen for an impromptu dominoes game, Buddy jumps at the chance to join in. Since the whirlwind phase of his life began, the devoted family man has been home only a handful of days.
"TenÃÂ© and I have been married almost 15 years," he says, "and we'd kind of gotten set in our ways. But this is something we'd been mentally preparing for all along, knowing that if the big break came, my being away from home was part of the deal. I hope it helps her a lot having the kids here. They probably keep her so busy she doesn't have time to miss me a whole lot.
"I think it's easier on me than him because he doesn't have us around," confesses TenÃÂ©. "Every time he sees a little girl or little boy, it breaks his heart. I'm at home and I can hold them at night."
Buddy agrees. "We were doing a listener appreciation show in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the other day. This lady came up and had this beautiful little boy and girl. I thought, 'You're going to make me miss my babies!' That's the time I miss them the most -- when I see other people with their kids."
Though he hasn't had many days in his new home, the Jewell household already bears evidence that a star lives there. Walking to the master bedroom closet, Buddy points to several boxes. "All these boxes are full of autographed clothes," he says. "I cleaned out my closet and Sony said, 'Don't throw anything away -- autograph everything and we'll give it to charity auctions.' "
Buddy shakes his head in wonder at the 180-degree turn his life has taken. "I knew I'd be gone a lot, and I knew I would be busy, but I didn't realize exactly how busy," he says with a smile. "I'd be lying if I said I did.
"But one of the things I really love about all of this is getting to meet new people and going to different places -- even if it's just from the airport to the radio station," he says, laughing.
"And the coolest thing is, as a performer and writer, you always wonder what the public's perception would be of your music. I used to wonder, 'If I ever got the chance to have my stuff played on a national level, how would people respond to it?'
"Now," he says with a twinkle in his eye, "I'm getting to see."