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American Idol finalist and hot country newcomer Josh Gracin spent the summer seperated from his family while serving his country - but now they've been reunited in a beautiful new house.

Just a few weeks ago, Josh Gracin was taking orders as an active-duty Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, Calif., 1,700 miles away from his family. Now he's relaxing on a comfy couch in his new home near Nashville, with wife Ann Marie and 2-year-old daughter Briana just downstairs.

It's safe to say that Josh has been through a lot of changes lately.

"It's kind of bittersweet, actually," he admits. "As a Marine, you're used to everything being regimented and people looking out for you. You don't have to worry about anything but doing your job.

"Now I get up in the civilian world - and it's awesome because I get to do what I want to do when I want to do it, and sleep in as late as I want to and stuff like that. But everything changes, day by day."

Josh has been planning for this massive lifestyle shift for months. He signed a record deal earlier this year, following his success on the TV talent show American Idol. He recorded his self-titled debut CD on weekend trips to Music City, but couldn't move to Nashville to launch his country career full-time until his discharge from the Marines - which came in early September.

While he waited, he watched his song "I Want to Live" reach the Top 10, and a second hit, "Nothin' to Lose," begin climbing the charts.

To prepare for the move, Josh and Ann Marie started shopping for a home in the Nashville area. "We wanted an open floor plan and hardwood floors," he recalls. "She wanted a nice kitchen. I wanted a bonus room - a rec room where I could put a pool table and a couple of arcade games. We wanted a comfortable family home where we could have family members come and be guests."

After looking at over 20 houses, they settled on this suburban two-story brick with a modest backyard in a quiet neighborhood of Franklin, close to Nashville.

"What sold my wife on the house was when she saw the master bathroom!" he chuckles. "We came to an agreement, and this is what we got. We found a perfect home."

Ann Marie made the move first to Nashville in May, expecting Josh to follow soon - he was scheduled to be transferred there to spend his remaining months on active duty as a Marine recruiter. But that arrangement fell through, leaving Josh in California while Ann Marie handled the move herself.

"I didn't do any of it," confesses Josh. "She did it all, with the military's help. I'm entitled to a move, so the military hires the moving company. She just sat down while they unpacked everything and put it where she wanted them to put it!"

The Gracins' new neighbors also helped out. "They're awesome," he reports. "They've helped her settle in and get comfortable. They helped her build my daughter's playset."

Josh and Ann Marie had faced separation before. "Being in the military, you're kind of used to that," explains Josh, who flew to Nashville most weekends before the move to get his country singing career off the ground. "You go off for a week or two, and they're by themselves."

It's actually good preparation for the time-consuming demands Josh faces as he plunges into country stardom. He'll be on the road for much of the next few months, meaning he'll be away from his family once again. Josh recalls speaking with fellow country up-and-comer Craig Morgan, himself an Army Reservist.

"He told me he was on tour 280 days a year, which was more than he ever was when he was active in the military," says Josh. "It's grueling. There are times when I'll be away from my family a lot more than if I was in the Marine Corps. For those four years the most I was away from my wife was a week and a half. So it's definitely going to be hard."

Josh plans to help the situation by bringing Ann Marie and Briana on tour with him as often as possible. Ann Marie has known Josh wanted to be a country star from the time they met as seventh-graders, so she's well prepared.

And Briana is adapting to the lifestyle quickly. "We took Briana to a few live shows I did, and she just loves it," he smiles. "She asked me last night, 'Daddy, are we gonna go on the school bus?' She calls the tour bus a 'school bus.'

"We'll work it out. Garth Brooks did it, Faith and Tim did it and the Dixie Chicks did it. People are realizing now that family involvement is important to stay on the road that long and stay motivated. You've gotta have that support from the family."

But Josh's full schedule is a problem for tomorrow, when he'll roll out of town on his "school bus." But today, he's at home with his wife and daughter, and he wants to enjoy the moment. So he heads downstairs, into the arms of his family.

- Chris Neal