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Scotty McCreery had just come home from school with an assignment: write essays for college applications.
Wait a minute. Isn't he the reigning American Idol? Isn't he about to go on tour with Brad Paisley?
The high school senior plans to be on campus in the fall. Last month, he was putting the finishing touches on applications for four or five schools. He's committed to his career but determined to go to college part-time, too.
"College is important to me. Education is important to me. You never know how far your job can take you," said McCreery, who plans to study marketing or communications -- something that will help in his profession.
At the same time, he has been more aggressive about launching his career than other recent "Idol" champs. The previous two winners, Lee DeWyze and Kris Allen, waited until after the next Idol was crowned before making their first solo appearance in the Twin Cities. By the time Season 11 begins Jan. 18, McCreery will have performed twice here -- two months ago at Mystic Lake Casino and this Saturday with Paisley at Xcel Energy Center.
"Being aggressive is something that needs to happen," McCreery said from his family home in Garner, N.C., just south of Raleigh. "Even when I was on the show, I remember talking to the producers saying that I want my album to come out quickly because I don't want the people forgetting about me. I'm going to work my tail off.
"One of my sayings from my baseball days is 'Go big or go home.' We want to go big. Right now, we're just trying to get out there and make sure people know we're still around."
Album sets two records
The people have certainly responded. McCreery's album, "Clear as Day," established two records: the first country newcomer and the youngest male to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart.
"That was something different," McCreery said in his typically modest, aw-shucks way. "I was extremely humbled by it, but we were ecstatic. When I heard the news, I was running all around the house."
Tastemakers in the music biz are warming to another "Idol" finalist jumping into country music.
"He's a hard kid not to pull for," said Gregg Swedberg, program director of K102, Minnesota's top country radio station, which hosted McCreery in November as part of its Class of 2011 showcase. "He's smarter than people think he is. It starts with the parents. They're 'parent' parents, not show-business parents. When he was doing radio appearances here, he had to get home to do his honors English test."
Neither of McCreery's singles -- "I Love You This Big" and "The Trouble With Girls" -- has set country radio on fire, but he's selling albums like a big-name star. In fact, he's outselling the latest by "Idol" hitmakers Kelly Clarkson and Chris Daughtry.
"It's a fairly safe first record," Swedberg said of McCreery's collection of radio-ready ballads and medium-tempo ditties. "His fans like it. It's a good start," but "not as crazy nuts" as when Carrie Underwood exploded from 2004 "Idol" champ to a superstar with the fastest-selling country debut ever.
Of course, not everybody has warmed to the languid Southern crooner with the strikingly deep voice, Mad-magazine face and goofy eyebrow-raising gestures. Entertainment Weekly magazine named "Clear as Day" one of the five worst albums of 2011.
"Is that so?" McCreery said the day after the magazine came out. "There you go. You can't win 'em all. Maybe they're R&B fans or something. You can't please everybody."
He let the high-profile cheap shot roll off him like NFL quarterback Drew Brees dodging would-be sackers. He's heard the cracks about looking like Mad mascot Alfred E. Neuman since he was a kid. It's no big deal.
Never mind his ears, what really stands out about McCreery is his poise, his maturity. On "American Idol," he exhibited the confidence and charisma of someone twice his age. He credits baseball.
"My dad pitched in college and he raised me on the pitcher's mound," McCreery reflected. "If you're the pitcher, all eyes are on you -- everybody in the stands and the team is depending on you. Being onstage and having all eyes on me, it's kind of a transition from baseball to the stage for me."
Although he's writing songs, McCreery didn't contribute any material to "Clear as Day." Working with producer Mark Bright (Underwood, Luke Bryan, Reba McEntire), he picked pieces by such Nashville stalwarts as Craig Wiseman, Rhett Akins and Chris Tompkins.
There's nothing about drinking or cheating, though. McCreery, who turned 18 in October, stuck with age-appropriate material -- singing about writing a girl's number on his hand, living in a small town and appreciating the demands on his mom.
"Going into the song-picking process, we all thought it was going to be a bigger challenge than it really was," he said. "They had to be songs I could relate to. I don't think there was one song on there that when I recorded it, I had to fake it or make something up in my mind to really believe it. All the songs speak to my life.
"I've only had one serious girlfriend," he said matter-of-factly. "And it was a 13-year-old serious relationship, so it wasn't too much. I've kind of been flying solo for the last few years. But heartbreak is heartbreak, whether you're 18 or whether you're 40."
Soft-spoken but thoughtful, McCreery is intent on enjoying his senior year at Garner Magnet High School. "My friends don't treat me any different," he said. And he made sure that this leg of the Paisley tour would be done before baseball begins.
He'll pitch if the North Carolina High School Athletic Association approves of his regimen of attending some classes and being tutored by his mother, a certified high school teacher, on the road.
If he had his choice of being the American Idol or the winning pitcher in the final game of the World Series, McCreery would opt for vocal champ.
"Baseball is something I've enjoyed doing but singing has been a passion for me since I was little," said McCreery, who sang the national anthem at the first game of the 2011 World Series. "This is what I want to do, be out there with the music and the guitar, making art."
However, there was no grand plan. He went to Milwaukee for the "American Idol" audition on a whim. And now he's taking it all in stride.
"I'm going to have to go out there and work hard and show them that I deserve to be here," he said.
K102 programmer Swedberg, who has met McCreery and his parents a few times, thinks the youngster is well grounded. He's the kind of eager-to-learn rookie who stood at the side of the stage during concerts in Raleigh, N.C., studying how Taylor Swift and Paisley perform. Similarly, he watched from the wings at the K102 Class of 2011 event in November, observing the more experienced but lesser known acts on the bill.
"It's kind of like watching the film for game day," he said, using a sports analogy.
The night that McCreery performed at Mystic Lake, Swedberg overheard his parents debating when to get their famous son an iPhone.
Said a dumbfounded Swedberg: "My daughter is not the 'American Idol' [she's a high school freshman] and she has an iPhone. But his mom said, 'No, let's wait until Christmas.' They understand that this could go away tomorrow."
That's why this American Idol is going to college.