Life After ‘Idol’: How Going Indie Paved Scotty McCreery’s Path to a No. 1 Country Hit

It took “Five More Minutes” to prove that Scott McCreery’s 15 minutes weren’t up. That’s the name of the single that this month brought him his first No. 1 chart success at country radio, a mere seven years after he got voted No. 1 on season 10 of “American Idol.”

In between, it looked like McCreery might slowly fade off the radar without ever landing a significant hit, despite the instant liking country fans had taken to him back in the early-2010s day. So yes, let’s call it a comeback, even if the singer America came to know as a preternaturally mature-sounding 17-year-old is still just 24.

One thing that’s definitely different from when McCreery was first doing press as a newly minted teen winner: At dinner, he’s the one peppering the waiter with questions about the wines. Variety caught up with him over a nice bottle of red while he was in L.A. to shoot a mentoring spot on the “Idol” reboot, and on the eve of the release of his new album, “Seasons Change.” His high spirits were in contrast to the funk he was in the last time he had a guest shot on “Idol,” two years ago, for reasons he’ll explain.

Variety: How was it, being back on the “Idol” set?
Scotty McCreery: The last time I mentored, during the “finale” season, I had just lost my deal [with Universal Music Group]. This time I mentored right as I was finding out I just got the first No. 1 single I ever had. It’s a pretty crazy contrast here in the last two years.

You found out you’d been dropped from your record label right as you were filming “Idol” two years ago?
Yeah. I probably wasn’t in the best headspace at that point. The day I found out, I had dinner with an “Idol” executive I hadn’t seen in three years. He didn’t know, and he just wanted to catch up. I was a little raw. The next day, we had to film “Idol” again, and I’m like: I’m going to try to put a smile on. The [contestants] were great, but I don’t think I talked to too many people that day that I didn’t have to. I kind of stayed in my corner.

[Scott Stem, McCreery’s manager, chimes in: “He mentored two young ladies [that week in 2016], and one of them was a young girl who was probably 15, and she had a major crush on him. It actually worked out really well, because all he really had to do was just stand there, and she was very happy.”]

At the time, were you thinking that could be it for your career as a major recording artist as well as for “Idol.”
Yeah, the big final season. “Block off this whole week. Please come to L.A. for the final show ever.” “Okay, we’ll be there.” “Come back next year!” [He laughs.] It’s cool. I love “Idol,” man. Everybody always asks if you try to separate yourself from “Idol,” and sure, you want to establish yourself as an artist away from the show. Some [alumni] are like, “Don’t ask me questions about ‘Idol.’” But it’s all love for me. It’s where I came from. It was fun to be back and see familiar faces – even down to, like, the security guards.

Usually people who come off the show either have success making records right away or not at all. But you and Lauren Alaina are both unusual studies in delayed gratification. She had her first No. 1 last year, six years after being on the show, and now you’ve had your first No. 1 after waiting seven years. That’s a strange career arc, but maybe it feels sweeter to have waited for it.
I think so, and I think I’m starting to realize that, too. I’m not saying I wouldn’t have loved to have had No. 1s off the bat and been off to the races. But I’m good if you have to put your boots on the ground and fight a little bit. I won’t speak for Lauren, but for me, I was 17 and I didn’t know what I wanted to sing about or how I wanted to put an album together. I’ve lived a little more life, I’ve moved out on my own, I’m paying my own bills, I’m engaged to be married. It’s a lot of life. In the grand scheme of life, seven years doesn’t seem like a long time, but 17 to 24, there’s a lot going on in those years. I still have a long way to go, but I feel like I have a better idea of what I want to say.

The odds were against you having a No. 1 ao far out from your key exposure, and maybe especially because you’d just signed with an independent label that didn’t have a big track record breaking songs at radio.
I’d tell [people] we signed with Triple Tigers, and they’d say, “Triple who?” They came on last summer, a month or two after we released it ourselves, and really helped get it to the top. They’re brand new, but they’re set up to win, with a great staff of veterans coming from major labels like RCA and Warner Bros. I felt totally confident. There’s something to be said for being on the biggest label out there and having all that firepower, and there’s also something to be said for being on a smaller label and having that laser focus for you and your goals.

“Five More Minutes” is personal for you, so maybe you would have taken it more personally if it hadn’t worked.
I was betting on my favorite song I’d ever written, which was “Five More Minutes.” We put it out there independently at first because we were really trusting the fact that country music at the core is about the song. We wrote it in 2015, two weeks after I lost my granddaddy Bill. I wrote it for him right off the bat, but it became a lot more about life. As soon as I wrote it, I tweeted out, “I think I just wrote my favorite song I’ve ever written.” It still holds true today. And it’s one of those songs that everybody can relate to. Everybody has that person or place or thing they want to spend five more minutes with.

Do you feel vindicated, that an indie label had a smash with this after a major passed on the chance at it?
I don’t know about vindicated. I’m a competitive guy, so you always want to prove people wrong, and I wanted to prove that that was wrong, for sure. But I’ve got love for 99 percent of the people at Universal. They’re great people, and I heard from a couple of ‘em, just reaching out and saying congrats. But, you know, just as a competitive guy, sure, if somebody says they don’t believe in it, and then you go out there and prove ‘em wrong, it feels good.

All these turnabouts were not in your script, whatever your script was.
Yeah, 2016 wasn’t fun for me by any means. That was a year I spent every day pretty much talking to my attorneys, just trying to figure everything out. … But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.

How many of the songs on the new album did you co-write?
All of them. I didn’t think I’d do it, but when you have five years to make a record, you’re gonna write hopefully at least 11 good ones. Actually, two of them, including “Five More Minutes,” are from 2015, but the other nine are very current — very me, very right now.

So the recording of “Five More Minutes” dates back to when you were still under your old label deal?
“Five More” did get changed; one word got changed from 2015 to now.

Wait, after two years, you went back in to re-record just one word?
After you sing a song live, you kind of figure out how you want to sing it and present it. Normally you don’t have the option to go back and record it because it’s already released. Luckily for us, that hadn’t happened. I was in North Carolina and said, “I’ve got to go to Nashville.” I got there and said, “I flew all the way here just to change one word” — and that was when I say “minutes” for the last time in the third verse. I wanted to speak it instead of sing it, because it felt more emotional. And I think it really helped the song.

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