Story by Wendy Newcomer Photo by Joe Hardwick
"Austin" singer Blake Shelton never expected to find himself plotting his escape from prison. But here he is, decked out in convict garb as he shoots the video for his new single, "Ol' Red."
"I haven't been in jail yet," jokes Blake, "but that's not to say I won't be someday. Then I can actually live the song." He deadpans, then breaks into a grin. "That'd be great, wouldn't it?"
He's got good reason to smile these days as "Ol' Red" zips up the charts. Long before his record deal, Blake was a fan of the tune.
"This is my favorite song in the world," he declares, having heard it when his friend, the late singer/songwriter Hoyt Axton, played it for him. "I'd visit with him and he'd tell me stories. One day he started tapping on the table and sang 'Ol' Red' a cappella. I just about fell on the floor.
"I held on to that song for about seven years," he continues. "It was the one song I knew I had to have on the record. It's actually been recorded before. Kenny Rogers did a version of it and so has George Jones, but it has never been a single -- so I'm the lucky one who got to put it out."
"Ol' Red" is the story of a man who's sent to a Georgia prison after he catches his cheating wife with her lover. While in prison he becomes pals with the warden, who gives him the cushy job of taking care of the guard dog, Ol' Red.
"In the video I'm playing the prisoner," explains Blake, "and I come up with a plan to have my cousin bring down a female blue tick hound and tie her up in the woods. In the evenings when I'm supposed to be taking Ol' Red for his run, I'm taking him to the woods to meet up with this hound. Just before I escape, I keep Ol' Red away from the blue tick about four days and it drives him crazy. When I finally make my break, they let Ol' Red out of the pen to hunt me, but he goes straight to the blue tick -- while I'm headed north to Tennessee!"
Playing the role of Blake's cousin is NASCAR driver Elliott Sadler, who met Blake at a Hank Williams Jr. concert.
"Blake and I have a mutual friend," notes Elliott, "and we just hit it off. We've had a great time passing stories back and forth about the different businesses we're in."
Business is definitely good for Blake. He's recently been nominated for the ACM's Top New Male Vocalist award. For this candid Oklahoma native, the nomination is a mark of just how far he's come -- personally and professionally -- in only a year.
"I was at the ACMs last year in awe of everything," he recalls. " 'Austin' had come out and was beginning to do well. That's when it all started coming together for me, career-wise. And that's about the same time everything was coming apart in my personal life."
The sudden fame took a toll on his relationships with family and friends.
"It's hard," he admits. "You go from being somebody nobody really cares about to having a big hit record. The same people who wouldn't give you the time of day three months ago are calling you, wanting to play you a song or write a song with you. You want to be bitter and shut everybody out -- but you can't do that. You have to learn it's just a part of this business. As soon as I start getting cold and my career starts going away, I know I'll go through the same things I did before, again."
Dealing with success was especially hard on his relationship with his longtime girlfriend, Kaynette.
"To be honest with you, we went through a really hard time last year," says Blake. "We were broken up for about four months. I lost focus of what was important to me. I started thinking maybe I should be out there going crazy and living life. I thought maybe I was meant to be partying every night, because the parties are there every night. I'm lucky I didn't lose her. I'm thankful she was patient and hung on.
"Now I see her more than I did before. When I'm in town I really concentrate on spending time with her. She's a teacher, and as soon as school is out, she's going to come on the road with me. We're going to keep trying. But without being able to see her all the time it's real easy to get caught up in the business and the crazy things that go on out on the road. You forget about the people who are important to you. That's scary to me.
"For a while, I didn't even talk to my mom or dad as much as I did before. And man, that's really stupid. I guess the main thing is just figuring out what your priorities are and what's important."
In addition to keeping his relationships solid and keeping fans happy, Blake's also added another priority to his list: owning his own farm.
"My goal has always been to own some land somewhere," reveals Blake, who used his earnings from "Austin" to purchase a ranch west of Nashville. "When I'm not on the road or working on the next album, I'm at home. I just bought 32 chickens, 12 turkeys and two ducks. I've got a tractor and all this farm stuff.
"It's like a bad episode of Green Acres," he says, laughing.
"I'm out there trying to learn how to drive a tractor," he continues, "learning about stuff I've always wanted to do. I just want to be somebody who has some land and works on it -- whether it's figuring out how to work my plow or deciding if I need to separate my roosters from my hens! I'm even thinking about getting some cows, but I've got to get my chickens grown first."
And there's also his career to tend to -- a task that's definitely a labor of love.
"We're playing a lot of fairs and rodeos," he declares, "and just continuing to build. Last year we were thrust right into a major tour with Lonestar and Jamie O'Neal. That was great, but I feel like I've got a lot of building to do out there in the clubs."
Blake pauses. "On a major tour, the fans can't really get to the artists and talk to them. I understand that's how it has to be, but I feel like I need to be out there shaking hands and signing autographs until everybody's gone -- and that's what I'm doing!"