- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 31, 2001

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Singer Blake Shelton has learned how one song can turn a newcomer into a country music player.
In April, Mr. Shelton's "Austin" was just starting to get some interest from radio stations when Giant, his record company, folded. Parent company Warner Bros. had the option to pick up his contract, but Mr. Shelton wasn't confident that would happen.
"They've since told me it was a close call," he says. "But they checked around with the radio guys, and I guess they liked what they heard."
"Austin" is a ballad about a lovelorn fellow who leaves long-winded personal greetings on his answering machine, hoping that an old flame will call. It's a story-song that requires listeners to pay attention through the last verse for the big payoff.
They have.
Written by David Kent and Kirsti Manna, "Austin" was the top country music song in America for five weeks. It's still hovering on the charts.
"That song just kept everything alive for me," Mr. Shelton says. "Even though the record company was gone, it was still happening."
Because of the hit, he's playing larger venues than most debut artists. Sometimes he performs the song twice during his show, due to audience demand.
"It is weird, because all of a sudden I'll break into the intro of 'Austin,' and the roof comes off the place," he says. "Everybody's singing along. Then the next song I do, nobody's ever heard of it."
Mr. Shelton is filling out his set with familiar hits by Hank Williams Jr. and Earl Thomas Conley.
He's encouraged that several other songs from his excellent debut CD, "Blake Shelton," are getting good receptions.
New single "All Over Me," written with his hero, Mr. Conley, is one of those clever country music songs with a double meaning.
It also shows off Mr. Shelton's vocal range. "Ol' Red" is another story-song, a cinematic tale about a prisoner who finds a novel way to escape.
Both are worthy, but the best indicator that Mr. Shelton is no flash in the pan is "Same Old Song," a swipe at the country music industry. It's all the more potent because Mr. Shelton has the gumption to sing it so early in his career.
The song, written by Bobby Braddock, takes aim at the light, happy lyrics that have come to dominate the country music charts.
Mr. Braddock, one of country music's greatest songwriters ("He Stopped Loving Her Today"), helped Mr. Shelton get a record contract and produced his album.
He says the song was conceived as a challenge to country music songwriters, including himself.
"I've written some stuff that some would call garbage or fluff," Mr. Braddock says. "It wasn't some burning issue with me, it just sort of irritated me.
"When Blake and I met, I found out he felt the same way. I thought he might be the guy to sing this song."
Mr. Shelton, 25, grew up in Ada, Okla. "I grew up on country music," he says. "Where I'm from, 85 percent of the people listen to nothing but country."
As a teen-ager, he was selected to perform at a tribute show to Mae Boren Axton, a local who wrote "Heartbreak Hotel" and other hits. Impressed, she said she would help him if he moved to Nashville after finishing high school.
Mr. Shelton followed her advice, moving to Nashville in 1994.
His first job was painting Mrs. Axton's house. Her son, singer Hoyt Axton, played him the song "Ol Red" during a visit.
Meanwhile, Mr. Shelton painted signs for real estate companies and construction sites to pay the bills.
Mr. Braddock met Mr. Shelton through a mutual songwriting friend.
"I thought he had what it took to be a superstar," Mr. Braddock says.

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