Rising country music star and "American Idol" winner Scotty McCreery is leading a bit of a double-life.
Four days a week, he is on the road with his band, singing songs from his million-selling debut album, "Clear As Day," and his upcoming disc, "See You Tonight." But on Mondays and Wednesdays, McCreery is a sophomore at North Carolina State University, in Raleigh.
The school, a short drive from his hometown of Garner, N.C., is surely loaded with young people who know who he is. But McCreery said it's a pretty cool student body.
"The kids are really letting me be, and letting me be a student," McCreery, a communications major, said. "I think if they weren't and it was kind of getting crazy, I wouldn't be able to do it - one, for me, but two, because it would be a distraction to all the other students.
"But I walk around there most of the time with no hat, no hoodie, no nothing. ... And obviously there will be a couple of times a day I'll get stopped for a picture or an autograph or somebody just wanting to say hey. But in the grand scheme of things, it's been really tame, really great."
McCreery is surely hoping for a more animated response on Friday night, when he hits Salem Civic Center.
McCreery, who will turn 20 on Oct. 9, will certainly be animated at the show. He said that early period Elvis Presley was his biggest formative influence.
"I love early Elvis, and not to say that I didn't like the old Elvis," McCreery said in a Thursday phone call. "But early Elvis I think reminds me a little bit more of myself, getting hype onstage. I just get really excited when I get up there, and Elvis, you could tell when he was in his early stages, he was just getting all energetic and everything. So it was cool to see that [on film]."
Aside from Elvis, McCreery lists Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Conway Twitty as the musical inspirations of his youth. His mother, Judy McCreery, who grew up on a corn farm near Elizabeth City, N.C., turned him on to those acts, he said.
That doesn't mean he gets annoyed about other genres finding a place on country music playlists. In the recent intertribal quarrels about the style and where it is headed, he keeps an open mind.
"Music changes," he said. "When you listen to rap music in the '90s and then listen to it today, there's been changes there, too. Everything changes.
"I grew up obviously listening to the traditional country. ? But I also grew up in Garner, a town of 30,000, at a high school that I like to call a melting pot.
"In my truck, I was listening to country music, but if I hopped in my friend's truck, he would listen to pop or rock or rap or hip- hop.
"So I don't think country music is going in particularly one direction. I don't think it's going pop. I don't think it's going rock. I don't think it's going hip-hop. I think it's just going more mainstream. I think it gets more people listening to country music. And by listening to somebody's country [music channel on] Pandora or Spotify, like Florida Georgia Line, they might hear George Jones, where they never heard George Jones before.
"So I just think we're broadening our horizon in country music. And I dig it."
For "See You Tonight," McCreery and his team hoped to combine traditional and contemporary elements, and that is in evidence on the album's title track, which has already been released as a single. A driving, pop-rock drum beat and overdriven guitars mix with mandolin and steel guitar underneath romantic lyrics delivered in McCreery's distinctive baritone.
The song has bounced around the Billboard top 50 country singles chart for more than four months after peaking at No. 18. McCreery co-wrote the number, one of five co-writes on "See You Tonight." He didn't contribute any on his debut album, but said that he grew up writing songs.
"When I was younger, in high school and stuff, I remember writing songs like the Taylor Swift songs, and getting all kinds of girls mad at me for writing the breakup songs," he said. "I was like, it's one of those things where you're putting your thoughts on paper and into a song.
"I enjoy doing it, and especially in Nashville, working with the guys that have been doing it forever now and have got it all figured out. I'm learning from them, and I think that's good for me as a young artist to sit down and work with guys that have been writing hits for the big dogs for a long time now."
He is excited for people to hear the album, which was about a year in the making.
"I am extremely pumped about this record," he said. "I wish Oct. 15 [the release date] was today."
The Sept. 25 edition of Billboard magazine included a staff- gathered list headlined "21 Under 21: Music's Hottest Minors 2013." The strangely titled piece lists One Direction, Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus as the top three. McCreery lands at No. 8, and promises that he will do no twerking to jump ahead on the list.
"It's cool to be on the list with them," he said. "They're obviously a lot more mainstream than me. They're in the big time, Justin and One Direction and all them. No. 8, that was my baseball number growing up, so I'm cool with that number. It's just awesome to be on that list.
"Billboard is kind of the biggest [industry publication] out there, with the charts and everything, so to be recognized by them is pretty cool."
With Angie Johnson
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
Where: Salem Civic Center
Cost: $51, $41, $31, $21
More info: Salem Civic Center box office, ticketmaster.com; scottymccreery.com, officialangiejohnson.bombplates.com
Go to blogs.roanoke.com/cutnscratch to hear a podcast with McCreery. Among the topics is the onetime high school pitcher's baseball stadium tour, undertaken to raise money for an organization that is working to promote baseball in inner cities. He also discusses what he learned from touring as Brad Paisley's opening act.
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