Long ago, a small-town guy with big-time dreams used to tell people he was going to make a living (A) singing country music or (B) picking up cans on the side of the road.
Blake Shelton picks up a lot of “metal” — if you count gold and platinum records.
The country music superstar from Ada is the subject of a new book (“Happy Anywhere: Blake Shelton”) written by someone who has been part of his life since the “Ol’ Red” singer was a pup. Author Carol Cash Large will attend a book signing from 2 to 4 pm Saturday, Aug. 6, at the Woodland Plaza Barnes & Noble store, 8620 E. 71st St.
Does the book have Shelton’s blessing? He wrote the foreword and, when Large scheduled a book signing in Ada, he tagged the author and tweeted “Ya’ll better be there people!”
The book tells the story of Shelton’s climb to fame. Large sprinkled in what she described as silly stories that happened during the journey.
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Pre-fame, Shelton met Oklahoma songwriter Mae Boren Axton (“Heartbreak Hotel”) at an awards show in Ada.
“She told Blake to call her when he moved to Nashville,” Large said. “Well, he called her (after moving to Nashville) to see what she wanted him to do, thinking she could get him on a show or something. She told him he could paint her gazebo, so he did that.”
Axton helped connect Shelton to a manager, but there was another perk. Music artist and songwriter Hoyt Axton, Mae’s son, happened to be on his bus in Mom’s driveway.
“Hoyt was watching Blake fiddling around out there and doing odds and ends for Mae and painting the gazebo,” Large said. “He called Blake onto his bus, and that’s the first time Blake ever heard the song ‘Ol’ Red.’ Hoyt sang it for him. He sang it a capella and was thumping the table with his hand. Blake heard that song and he thought, ‘Boy, if I ever get a chance … I’m going to record that song.’ Of course, he did. It’s still his song. It’s the one most people know.”
“Ol’ Red” was a single on Shelton’s 2001 debut album (go ahead and call it his signature song) and Ole Red is the name of Shelton’s restaurant chain. There’s an Ole Red in Tishomingo, Oklahoma. Shelton and wife Gwen Stefani live near Tishomingo.
Large volunteered that “Happy Anywhere” is not a book about Shelton’s personal life.
“I stayed out of the National Enquirer’s lane completely,” she said. “It’s just a happy book.”
Large said she and her husband, Larry, have known Shelton since he was about 12. Larry was a drummer in a band that had a little “Opry-type show” in Ada. Shelton’s mom drove him in for an audition. It wasn’t unusual for kids to try out for the show, according to Large, but Shelton might have been the youngest.
“If their parents thought they had a little bit of talent, they would bring them,” Large said. “And most of ’em, unless they were just awful, they would let them try out and sing. But Blake just really wanted to do it.”
Shelton auditioned as a singer.
“The only thing he had sang at up to that time was his mother used to take him to beauty pageants and stuff like that,” Large said.
Blake’s audition went well (“he had good stage presence for a 12-year-old”) and he began appearing on the Opry-type show periodically.
“From that point on, we have known him and Larry has backed him,” Large said. “And then they moved to the McSwain Theater in Ada, and Paul Alford, who owned it, actually hired Blake as one of the performers because he had such a big family that it almost guaranteed him an audience.”
When Shelton was about 16, he visited the Larges at their home and pitched a request: Help me move to Nashville. Carol, a teacher, and Larry, a principal, were in the education business at the time.
“Larry said ‘You’ve got to finish high school first, but if you will finish high school, I will do all I can to help.’ We knew Reba (McEntire) a little bit and had a couple of little connections like that — we really didn’t know much about the business — and so Blake just kept playing at the McSwain and, when he graduated high school, we moved him to Nashville two weeks out of high school. He wasn’t quite 18 yet. We stayed down there with him until he turned 18 and rented him an apartment and everything. His parents were all supportive.”
The Larges got Shelton settled in, then moved to Tennessee themselves. They relocated from Ada because they believed in Shelton and wanted to support his dream.
When did Carol know Shelton had “it” — whatever “it” is? She told a story about how people liked Shelton when he was 16 or 17. He had the best personality of anyone she had ever met. He was blessed with an old soul and loved listening to people. Interacting with people after shows in the early days, he treated everyone the same.
“He loved them all,” she said. “He used to always sign his pictures ‘I love you,’ and it got to a point after he started getting popular, I said ‘You are going to have to quit doing that because somebody is going to take you seriously.'”
Lots of folks aim to make it in the entertainment business and miss the mark. Shelton was driven and had persistence, said Carol, who again mentioned his unique personality.
“When he got to Nashville and all of the suits were so professional-acting, Blake would just walk up to them and hug them,” she said. “They didn’t know what to make of him and they finally just embraced that. He was just so different. But I think (he achieved success because of) a combination of things. He was talented. He had this great personality. He could tell a story. I knew if they ever got him on late-night TV they would love him, and sure enough they do.”
Good fortune was a factor, too, or maybe you can call it good timing. Shelton’s first label, Giant Records, crashed after the release of his debut single, “Austin.”
“He was lucky that Warner Bros. picked him up since he only had that one song out, but it was a big hit,” Carol said.
Carol heard “Austin” before radio listeners. His first album was essentially complete before he was introduced to the song. He didn’t love the demo of “Austin” he was given because it featured a keyboard background. He was urged to go home and learn to sing “Austin” with a guitar to see if he liked the song any better. Mission accomplished, he called Carol at 3 am to sing it to her over the phone.
“He called just to see what I thought about it,” she said. “I remember telling him it kind of reminded me of Glen Campbell. It kind of reminded me of ‘By the Time I Get to Phoenix’ or something like that. But it was good. Everybody liked it for a different reason. It was about an answering machine when answering machines were a thing. They added it to the album. They put that on the album and then, on top of that, they made it the first single.”
“Happy Anywhere” is also Carol’s first book. She taught reading for decades and always had an itch to write a book.
“I retired from teaching and was thinking about it one day,” she said. “Actually, we had gone out with Blake one weekend. We usually go out on tour with him one weekend a year, at least. We were just sitting on the bus one morning. … I said, ‘You know Blake, I always told my students to write about what they knew and loved. I think I am going to write about you.’ And he said ‘Go for it.”
Carol said she spent about five years on the book. She wanted to research songs and dates and get details correct. She also made it a priority to give props to songwriters, who, in her opinion, don’t get enough credit.
Carol said Shelton provided “the sweetest foreword you have ever read in your life.” McEntire and Bobby Braddock (who produced Shelton’s first album) wrote glowing reviews of the book.
“I think it is so cool that Carol kept a journal on all the events that happened in Blake Shelton’s life,” McEntire said in a quote that appears on the back cover. “It’s one thing to get Blake’s point of view, but to hear another person’s perspective, who was there with him every step of the way, is priceless. I wish I had somebody writing all of those memories down for my career! I learned a lot about Blake and his early days in country music. I know you will too.”
What does Carol now want people to know about Shelton?
“Just that he is who you think he is. He is who he is on ‘The Voice.’ He loves people. He is also generous. He is also loyal. I just want them to know that he is what you expect him to be. It’s not just a front. It’s not a facade. He really is that person. He’s just a great guy — and he really hasn’t changed anything.”