In 1982, singer Lacy J. Dalton recorded her best-known country hit. The tune, called “16th Avenue” after the location of Nashville’s famous Music Row, described the toil and torment aspiring singers endure while waiting for their big break.
Blake Shelton was only 6 years old when the song hit the charts, but 11 years later, he rode into Music City “with a million-dollar spirit and an old flattop guitar,” just like the song says. Thus began the first of seven long years playing the local clubs and holding down odd jobs before finally catching the attention of Nashville’s movers and shakers.
Seven years is a long time to spend waiting around for attention, but luckily for Shelton, Nashville is situated on some prime fishing destinations, including Percy Priest Lake, where he once hooked into a trophy … muskrat.
“One time I was fishing behind Percy Priest Dam at night,” Shelton said. “I caught four striper hybrids with a top-water plug when I hooked into a big one. I fought it and reeled it in, and it was a muskrat. I liked to have never got him unhooked. I had a death grip on his head.”
Growing up in Ada, Okla., muskrats were typically not the catch of choice when Shelton skipped school to search the local ponds for the big bites. “I started fishing when I was 10 years old,” he said. “I’d go by myself to the Oklahoma farm ponds. I was lucky; there were lots of places to go. When I was old enough to drive, I’d skip school and do whatever I had to do to go fishing and hunting. I was passionate about it; it took over my life.”
Shelton preferred pond fishing but spent a spring break or two fishing Lake Fork in Texas, often with his stepdad, Mike. “He took me to Lake Fork even before he and my mom were dating,” Shelton said. “Mike taught me a lot about fishing. I knew the basics, but he was more advanced. At Lake Fork you’ve always got the opportunity to catch the bass of a lifetime. A potential 13- to 14-pound bass is not out of the question.”
Shelton enjoys fishing for bass, preferably, but also catfish, carp and occasionally trout. “I mix it up, but I always go back to bass,” he said. “When we’re touring and we get a day or two off, I make the bus driver find a place in the woods. In California and Connecticut I’ve fished trout rivers and stuff that I don’t know how to fish.”
Typically, though, Shelton has precious little time to go fishing due to his rigorous touring schedule that is usually heavy on spring and summer dates. When he is home in the fall and winter, he goes into hunting mode, chasing white-tailed deer around his Tennessee farm.
“Whitetails are easily my favorite,” Shelton said. “Anything else I hunt for is just because it’s not deer season. Deer have taken over my life.”
That said, Shelton does like to return to his first outdoor love – bass fishing. “It infatuates me,” he said. “There are always more things to learn. I love that state of mind, just being at peace. It’s a matter of being one-on-one with nature and trying to outsmart something that’s trying to avoid you. It’s not easy but it’s exciting. My life gets complicated, and it doesn’t get any simpler for me than fishing.”
In fact, Shelton says he works as hard as he does at his career so that he can one day have all the time in the world to go fishing and hunting. He currently does not own a bass boat – “I’m afraid it would sit in the yard and rot” – but he does have a farm notable for its unusual inhabitants.
“I have a wild turkey raised from an egg,” he said. “I like to mess around with stuff like that. I’d like to get a place on the lake, though. I’m torn between Tennessee and Oklahoma.”
For now, though, Shelton remains focused on his burgeoning music career, which began in 2001 with his first No. 1 single, “Austin.” The immediate success of the song, about a couple reunited by an answering machine, took everyone by surprise.
“When `Austin’ took off, it was like it wasn’t really happening,” he said. “I had spent seven years looking for a break, and `Austin’ just blew up. We were hoping for a top 20, and it went No. 1. It freaked me out – it did everybody. Nobody expected it. We had a lot of catching up to do.”
His label at the time, Giant Records, scrambled to put together a video and release the accompanying album. With his career exploding, Shelton naturally became a little apprehensive.
“By the time the video came out, the song was already No. 1,” he said. “It was kind of a blessing and a curse. I was worried for a while because I didn’t want to be a one-hit wonder.”
A one-hit wonder he was not. His next single, “All Over Me,” stalled on the charts, but the third single, “Ol’ Red,” was nothing short of a sensation. The song, about a man who escapes from prison with the help of a guard dog, was an immediate hit, and Shelton’s album went gold.
“That first album went gold, and that means a lot,” Shelton said. “It’s one thing to have a hit on the radio, but when people go out en masse and buy it, they want to own that. That first one will always be special to me.”
Shelton’s next effort, a tearjerker called “The Baby,” also hit No. 1 and further established Shelton as a talent to be reckoned with. The song was written by legendary Nashville tunesmith Harley Allen, who also wrote Shelton’s current single, “When Somebody Knows You That Well.”
“I’ve got a brand-new single out and an album coming out in July,” he said. “I want to continue touring and doing this until the ship doesn’t float. While things are good, I want to work really hard.”
During his tenure in the music business, Shelton has worked with people who know the meaning of a long career, including his producer, Bobby Braddock, a visionary who has written everything from the classic “He Stopped Loving Her Today” to the irreverent “I Wanna Talk about Me.” Shelton also enjoyed the opportunity to write with one of his childhood idols, Earl Thomas Conley.
“I’ve been able to meet a lot of heroes,” Shelton said. “That’s something you hold up for yourself. When I’m not cool anymore, I’ll look back and that’ll mean a lot to me. I want longevity in my career. I want to be here 15 years from now, but the odds are against that. I love what I do and I never want it to go away.”
Music is a fickle business – “and for a while they’ll go in style,” says the old Lacy J. Dalton song – but as long as Shelton keeps cranking out the hits, odds are that bass boat of his is just going to have to wait.