What differentiates the stars from the hoi-polloi? Blake Shelton recently tweeted that he believes there’s a big difference at the “cellular” level: “I’m so famous my phone continuously asks me for my current location – just because it worries about me. Bitch…”
Blake Shelton is many things. He is left of centre but flat bang in the middle of cool, the hugely popular coach on the The Voice USA, where singers he’s mentored have won three out of six seasons. He is the reigning CMA Male Vocalist of the Year – and the last three years besides. He’s the charismatic live entertainer performing to packed houses in arenas, amphitheaters and stadiums across the country. He’s husband to country superstar Miranda Lambert, together inspiring endless public fascination as country’s “Power Couple.”
But the one overriding facet of who Blake Shelton is led him down a path that made all these other designations come to pass. Blake Shelton is a Country Music Singer.
Shelton is in a league of his own among contemporary country artists as a top-shelf interpreter of true country music songs, and his 11th studio album, Bringing Back The Sunshine, marks a return to showcasing that and sonically represents the best contemporary country has to offer, yet feels like the classic cuts served up by the heroes that inspired Shelton as young boy in Oklahoma some 30 years ago.
On Bringing Back The Sunshine, producer Scott Hendricks, Shelton’s long-time friend and collaborator, created an album that highlights what is arguably the most powerful vocals Blake Shelton has ever committed to disc. “If there’s one thing that is important to me, no matter what, it’s singing,” says Shelton. “I’m a fan of a lot of artists, but I always gravitate to the singers, and that’s why I always looked up to Earl Thomas Conley, Travis Tritt, Ronnie Milsap, Conway Twitty. These guys never went through the motions when it came to laying down a vocal.”
From soaring confessionals and convincing professions of love and loss in cuts like the steel-drenched nostalgia of ‘Good Country Song,’ the yearning ‘Sangria,’ and the vulnerability of ‘Anyone Else,’ to immediately memorable up- and mid-tempos such as the hilarious ‘Buzzin’,’ innocent romanticism of ‘Gonna’ and the Southern rock/country blend of the title cut, Sunshine is an album of highlights, and the exact tonic country music needs right now.
In short, it is a sterling example of what contemporary country music can be at its best. “Our goal every time is to make the best record we can possibly make, and not let any politics or anything else get in the way of that,” says Shelton. “It’s me coming in and trying to be the best singer I can be, and Scott pushing me to do that, along with all the other jobs he has of making a record.”
Sunshine displays the process that begins with a never-ending search for the perfect songs for Shelton’s supple baritone and demanding lyrical standards. “The only thing I really knew I wanted to do for sure—and Scott agreed—was, ‘let’s make a ‘countrier’ record than we’ve made in a while,” Shelton says, “and I do think we accomplished that. It definitely has elements of things you hear on the radio now, but I think it’s more of a throwback to some of those earlier albums I made with [producer] Bobby Braddock, as far as lyrical content and even the melodies.”
The public’s first taste of that focus was ‘Neon Light,’ which Shelton describes as owning a “straight up George Strait, George Jones or Conway Twitty sounding chorus, mixed with the more recent stuff that I have recorded.” Thematically, the always-confident Shelton knew what he wanted. “One of the things I felt like I should do as a country singer was record music again that’s about breakin’ up, and heartache, and going out and getting drunk,” he says. “The last two albums I made, one was just before I got married and one was just after I got married. I was in a really good place, and still am. But, at some point, I feel a responsibility to get back to, honestly, some of the more stereotypical things about country music. Those were the things that drew me to country music, so I wanted to sing about going to a bar, or somebody breaking your heart, singin’ about girls and things. More classic country music topics, you know?”
But even with the familiarity Sunshine evokes, the surprises really pop, as with the keenly insightful ‘Anyone Else,’ a song few artists would have had the courage to cut. Shelton says he “stole” that song from his wife. “She was going to record that for her Platinum album,” Shelton reveals with a laugh. “I absolutely fell in love with that song, and I begged her for it. She owed me one anyway from ‘House That Built Me,’ so I quilted her on that to get the song I wanted.”
Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone else singing ‘Anyone Else,’ a song of rare emotional nakedness to which Shelton brings a startling intensity. Shelton says it starts with the song, written by Luke Laird, Barry Dean and Natalie Hemby. With its gentle opening guitar notes, what first appears to be a chiming, easy-rolling ballad reveals itself with striking lyrics like “a jealous sky won’t share the sun,” resulting in one of the most powerful songs Shelton has ever laid down.
“’Anyone Else’ is unlike anything else I’ve ever heard before,” Shelton says. “I can’t even tell you how much I love that song, I think it’s one of the most important songs I’ve ever recorded. I’ve been the guy on both sides of that song.”
More treasures abound on Bringing Back The Sunshine, often filtered through the astute ears of Shelton’s in-house ‘sample group’ – Miranda Lambert. “After I get some things I’m pumped about, I like to get Miranda in the truck and just play her stuff,” says Shelton. “When she heard ‘South Of Heaven,’ she played it again and again, and I called Scott and said, ‘Man, we’re cuttin’ ‘South Of Heaven.’ Once we cut it, it became clear that this was one of my favourite ballads ever.”
‘South Of Heaven’ is one of three vastly different tracks co-written by Wiseman. “The way Craig Wiseman can write a song blows my mind,” Shelton marvels. “He can not only put you in that moment, but in that person’s brain and what they’re feeling. [‘South Of Heaven’] definitely takes me back to high school, or even a little after high school, those moments that just seem magical, whenever you had that girl and you went back-roadin’, or whatever your particular version is—we all have a version of it—that song definitely takes me there.”
Conversely, another Wiseman gem, ‘Buzzin’’ conjures up a different feeling entirely. “What I love about Craig, and I think ‘Buzzin’’ is a good representation of this, he’s so brilliant, so smart with his songwriting. “These songs are so genius and yet still goofy at the same damn time. Every time I see his name on a song I can’t wait to hear it.”
Shifting gears yet again, Shelton believes ‘Sangria’ is “one of the sexiest songs I’ve ever cut,” he says. “It sounds like something that came from a different time, almost like something Chris Isaak would have had on one of his records at some point. It’s just about one of those nights where you drink too much and you’re gonna end up hookin’ up with this person, it’s just inevitable. It’s not too over the top, but it’s pure sex, that’s the only way I know to describe that song.”
‘Lonely Tonight,’ a stirring duet with Ashley Monroe, was the “toughest vocal on the record for me,” Shelton says. “That song is just so range-y and, on top of that, I knew Ashley was going to come in and sing on it, and I knew that people were gonna hear her singing in a way they’d never heard her sing before,” he says. “We all know she’s a singer/songwriter, and we’ve all heard that side of her, but I don’t think people know the girl can wail like she can. I just wanted to step up to that level, so I was really hard on myself, and tried to make that as best as I could possibly get it.”
Others came more easily, like ‘I Need My Girl.’ “That’s right in my wheelhouse of what I do, along the lines of ‘She Wouldn’t Be Gone’ or ‘Over You,’ some of those type of records that are kind of a power ballad,” Shelton says. “That’s my natural go-to, and that was fun for me to sing.”
With its spirit of optimism, ‘Bringing Back The Sunshine’ made perfect sense to Shelton as a title for the album. “I love the message of the song. It’s about a couple that’s gone through something, probably separated, and just decided to get back together, what’s most important is their love,” Shelton explains. “There’s something magical about that title, and given what this album is all about, I thought Bringing Back The Sunshine is like I’m bringing back some country music, some of these sounds we don’t hear that much anymore in country, at least in the mainstream,” he says. “Country is sunshine to me.”
Perhaps the defining track is ‘A Good Country Song,’ a bittersweet, breathtaking slice of nostalgia written by Tommy Lee James, Matt Jenkins, and Jessi Alexander. “Jessi Alexander is a great friend of mine, and she got in touch with me when she heard we were cutting tracks and said, ‘I heard you’re recording, can I start writing for your project?’” Shelton says. “I said, ‘Hell yeah.’ She’s written some very important songs in my career, like ‘Drink On It,‘ she co-wrote ‘Might Only Be You.’ When she writes for me, she literally writes for me, and if you ever question that, you only need listen to the lyric of ‘A Good Country Song.’ When I heard the lyric, it was almost as if she grew up in the same house I grew up in, from shifting the gears in my dad’s truck to listening to Earl Thomas Conley on a station out of Tulsa. There has never been a more accurate song about me that I have recorded.”
That’s it, in a nutshell. Bringing Back The Sunshine showcases the many facets of a complicated person with a simple mission: creating a diverse, powerful country music album.
It taps into Shelton’s innate vocal rhythm, resulting in songs that are more pulsing than pounding, tempo notwithstanding. “It’s an accident, but it’s still by design of trying to keep the pulse up a little bit,” Shelton says, “while not getting too boring, because I do tend to be a ballad singer.”
So even if Sunshine finds Shelton entering a new phase of his career, the record still finds him looking back and forward simultaneously, in tone if not overall musicality. He’s still that guy who forfeited high school athletics to play gigs, who obsessed over the liners of each new country album he bought, who took off for Nashville at 17 armed with nothing but a dream and a country voice for the ages.
“It’s very important to me to push myself and push boundaries, musically and artistically, and always be looking for what’s next,” he says. “But it’s also important for me to come back and touch home base every once in a while, to be sure there’s always a firm foot planted in country music. Country’s defined a lot of different ways by a lot of different people, and I’m sure there are other people out there that will listen to ‘A Good Country Song’ and say ‘aw, that ain’t country.’ But country’s defined by each individual, and this is my definition of stepping back a little bit, let’s make a record that represents the beginning of my career, but also blending with where I’ve ended up. I think there’s still a place for that in country radio, and it’s important as an industry that we all don’t get too far away from home.”
This past summer, Shelton has been away from home performing before hordes of fans who have turned out for sold-out shows at iconic venues like New York’s Madison Square Garden, LA’s Hollywood Bowl and Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Shelton is wrapping the biggest tour of his career, but finds getting face-to-face with fans rewarding on multiple levels. “It’s so exciting to look down and see a six year old girl singing the words to ‘Ol’ Red’ or ‘Austin,’ and then look over and see a 60 year-old woman singing ‘Boys ‘Round Here,’ singing ‘backwoods legit, don’t take no shit.’
I always said my ultimate goal is to have a career like George Strait, and although I haven’t done that—and nobody probably ever will—that is my goal. And to step out there and see that it’s going from one generation to another, that’s the most satisfying and exciting thing that any artist can accomplish.”
So if the more seasoned and savvy made-for-TV Blake could tell the driven 17 year-old Blake that headed off to Nashville anything, “I’d tell him just to relax and stop worrying so much,” he says. “I knew the one thing that I wanted to do with my life was country music, it worried me to death. I was never one of those people who was like, ‘I’ll give it a shot for a while and then move on.’ It never was that for me, it was ‘how am I gonna get this done, how am I gonna get my foot in the door?’ Even after I had a hit or two, it was worry of ‘how can I keep this going?’ It wasn’t until the last three or four years that I finally started taking a deep breath and going, ‘man, I get to be a country singer, and it’s OK.’