Blake Shelton headlines a star-studded lineup at the 2015 Country Thunder Music Festival

by Clayton Klapper

WHEN YOU THINK OF THE CONSTANT LEADERS ON THE BILLBOARD CHARTS you think of names that are bigger than the music itself. You think of artists who have award winning music but are entertainers outside of their songs as well. With his work on The Voice, his recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, and count- less partnerships over the years including some with Pizza Hut, Pepsi and JC Penny, Blake Shelton is the epitome of success. He has created a brand for himself that stretches across all entertainment platforms.

Shelton, along with several other big name country music stars are headed to Arizona from April 9th to the 12th for one of the biggest music festivals there is. Big & Rich, Luke Bryan, Brett Eldredge, Dallas Smith and Jerrod Niemann are just a few of the 21 names currently scheduled to perform over four nights during Country Thunder.

“There’s more to it than walking on stage, singing a song and walking off. I knew I wasn’t a good enough singer for that to be it,” Shelton said during an inter- view with 60 Minutes. “You have to perform but you also have to entertain. You have to tell a joke or tell a story, make the most of the time you’re out there so people remember you when you walk away.”

While Shelton is now a household name and country music star, he started off as a small town kid in Ada, Oklahoma who just loved his family and music. His dad was a used car salesman, and his mom ran a beauty parlor in the town of just 20,000. Shelton spent his days after school hunting and fishing with his brother and dad, and when they were inside his brother Richie always blasted country music classics. Following in his brother’s footsteps, Shelton became addicted to music as well. But when Shelton was 14, everything changed when Richie was killed in a car crash.

Shelton has said that was the moment he was thrust into adulthood and trans- formed from a 14-year-old boy to a 14-year-old man. He finished up high school and at the age of 17 dropped everything to move to Nashville, Tennessee and pursue his singing career.

It took several years but once Shelton got a deal with Giant Records, his career took off. He was introduced to the country world with the song “Austin” in 2001, which spent five weeks as number one on the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart. His first self-titled album came out under the Giant Records name and was gold certified. It also produced two more top 20 hits, including “Ol Red” and “All Over Me.”

Giant Records closed shortly after the debut of “Austin” and Shelton was transferred to Warner Brothers Records in late 2001.

Over the next few years he released two more albums, The Dreamer and Blake Shelton’s Barn and Grill. Both were also gold certified and produced his number one hits “The Baby,” and “Some Beach.”

Though already successful, Shelton’s personal and professional life took a major turn with a television performance in 2005.

Just two years after he married his long-time girlfriend Kaynette Gern, Shelton was paired with another rising country star named Miranda Lambert for a duet on CMT’s 100 Greatest Duets special. Although Shelton was still married at the time, both Shelton and Lambert admit they fell for each other during that performance.

Shelton and his first wife were divorced in 2006, a decision Shelton said was so tough that it rivaled the loss of his brother. He and Lambert started dating shortly after, as Shelton continued to climb the country music charts. His next album Pure BS produced songs “Don’t Make Me,” “The More I Drink,” and his cover of Michael Buble’s hit single “Home,” which became Shelton’s fourth number one song.

In 2010, Shelton recorded a duet with Trace Adkins called “Hillbilly Bone,” which hit number one and was the title track for his next album. Months later he was inducted into the Grand Ole’ Opry, which Shelton called, at the time, the greatest honor he’d ever received. Later that year he also won the Country Music Award for male vocalist of the year, putting him at the top of the industry. While the country world already knew plenty well who Shelton was, 2011 was arguably the year that made him a household name across the entertainment industry. He was approached by NBC and accepted an offer to be a judge on a new show called The Voice, which is currently in its eighth season. During its run Shelton has gone from being probably the least recognizable judge on the show, to the most well known.

That same year Shelton’s album, Red River Blue, released four number one singles led off by one of his most successful songs to date, “Honey Bee,” which was the fastest single to reach gold in country music history.

Shelton and Lambert also tied the knot in 2011 after over four years of dating. As their relationship grew, he continuously told her stories about his brother and their childhood together. The two wanted Lambert to feel as close as possible to knowing Richie, because they never got the chance to meet.

One night the two sat down in Shelton’s tour bus and started to write together. What they came up with was the song “Over You,” circled around a message from Shelton’s father. When a teenaged Shelton asked his dad how to deal with his brother’s death, he would respond that “you’ll never get over it, you’ll just have to learn how to live with it.” That was the focus of the message of the song, which Lambert originally recorded because Shelton said he didn’t think he would be able to sing it without breaking down.

The song was named CMA song of the year for 2012 and was named single record and song of the year at the 2013 Academy of Country Music Awards. Shelton has since recorded the song himself, and now often sings it while out on tour.

Over the last two years Shelton has solidified his place at the top of the entertainment industry. His album Based on a True Story helped him reach a record 11 straight number one singles on the Billboard Country Airplay charts and the streak hasn’t stopped since. The first two singles off his most recent album Bring Back the Sunshine, “Neon Light” and “Lonely Tonight,” have also hit number one on the Country Airplay charts putting him at 13 straight number ones.

Bringing back the Sunshine is the perfect title of Shelton’s latest release. When asked by AZSAL for a glimpse at what mused such a moniker Shelton said, “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. Country music is sunshine to me.”

blake-02With his busy schedule taping The Voice, Shelton doesn’t tour nearly as often as most country artists. When he does, however, it makes it that much more special. Shelton gets on stage and sings about the things he’s most passionate about. He sings about his family, his friends, love and tragedy, and his songs connect with a wide range of fans who feel the same way he does.

With his ability to relate to his audience, you might think that country music singers and writers have an advantage over other music genres. AZSAL had a chance to ask Shelton about just that.

“Country’s defined a lot of different ways by a lot of different people, but when I open my mouth, it’s country, and always has been.” It’s the interjection of shameless self-awareness and a desire and openness to share that with his fans that make Shelton accessible and likeable as a super star. “If somebody wants to get the gist of who I am from start to finish, I think this album musically encompasses all the roads I’ve explored as an artist.”

The people taking the stage with Shelton at Country Thunder think along the same lines, making for one of the most exciting events Arizona hosts every year. The event gives fans the chance to see the biggest names in the industry all on one stage and also gives up and coming artists the chance to share the big stage.

Taking the stage Thursday night during Country Thunder is Jayme Lynn Spears, who has just recently released her first country music album. The album is a compilation of songs that have been put together over the past six years and the start to what should be a very successful country music career.

“It’s an honor for me to be able to be a part of an event like this with so many artists that have really made a place for themselves in this industry,” Spears said. “I love watching a seasoned artist take the stage with the confidence that only comes from really owning who you are, and I learn so much from seeing that.”

Spears has taken the last six years to be out of the spotlight and focus on her daughter and writing music in Nashville.

“I had a daughter and wanted to just take time away to be a mother,” Spears said. “After I had my daughter I started writing a lot and felt it was exactly what I wanted to do, so I moved to Nashville and focused on that part of the process first.”

Whether you make it to Country Thunder for one night or the entire four day weekend, you won’t be disappointed. Each night has several big name headliners, as well as a few up and coming opening acts who will be looking to wow crowds into following them as their careers progress. So request time off, buy your tickets and reserve your camp spot and make sure you’re at Country Thunder. We’ll see you there!

AZSAL Fast Facts

  • Shelton was slated to release the song “I want to talk about me” as his first single. At the last second, however, the record company decided they didn’t believe the song was fit for his first release. Toby Keith later recorded the number one song.
  • Shelton’s mother entered him in local beauty pageants, so he could sing on stage as a child during the talent portions.
  • Shelton once received a live iguana as a gift from a fan after a performance at a fair.
  • Blake Shelton has had 19 number one singles in his career on the Billboard US Country Airplay charts.
  • Shelton convinced Warner Brothers to make a video for “Ol’ Red” by telling them if it didn’t work out they could drop him from their label.
  • Shelton often has Miranda Lambert sample his music before he decides which songs to cut for albums.

AZSAL also had the opportunity to interview Dallas Smith, a Canadian born country singer, whom he still calls Canada home. Smith has been performing since 2002, as what he calls “sort of an accident” when speaking of singing country music. He along with many other long timers will be out there warming up the down home, die hard, country music fans.

AZSAL: Tell us a highlight or two about your career.

Dallas Smith: “One of the biggest for sure was in 2010 when we got to go to Afghanistan to play for the troops over there for team Canada, along with many other countries. We sat and ate meals with the soldiers, they had us do some basic training even, and of course played music the four days we were there” says Smith.

AZSAL: Along with a star studded line-up, you’re performing at this years Country Thunder Arizona, Have you ever played or attended the festival in the past and what are you looking forward to when here?

Dallas Smith: “I’ve never played nor attended Country Thunder, but we are very excited to play at this years festival along side, as you said, so many great country music artists. We can’t to play to fans that come out for a four day fun fest!”