You know what they say about a bad day of fishing—it’s better than a good day at work. Well, Scotty McCreery and Nash Country Daily are putting that wisdom to the test.
The trees are just starting to bud and workers are mowing the grass at Rockland Recreation Area just North of Nashville, but summertime it ain’t. The wind whips across Old Hickory Lake—once the peaceful backyard of Johnny and June Carter Cash—and even with bright sunshine breaking through the clouds it’s cold enough to make us all glad we’re not on a boat. Dock fishing will be just fine.
Scotty’s an outdoorsy guy and fishes a few times every year with his buddies around Garner, N.C., mostly in the honey holes of golf-course ponds where anglers rarely venture. Those are where the largest of largemouth bass lurk, he says, the real-life embodiment of big fish in little ponds. Hopes are high that this adventure, too, will result in a whopper on Scotty’s line and a smiling photo with his haul, so when he snaps his fishing pole back and suddenly goes silent, the plan appears to be coming together.
“Uh oh,” he says in that unmistakable baritone, far too deep for a man of only 22 years.
The rod tip bends over and gives a little wiggle—there’s clearly something down there. Scotty reels in line quickly but without rushing, and the excitement builds. We can see something shiny on the hook—perhaps a small bluegill. The photographer is snapping away and we’re all about ready to start gloating over our obvious mastery of the art of fishing. Then it breaks the water’s surface and dangles there in the air, mocking us silently.
It’s a rusty old tin can, the cliché of all fishing clichés. You could fish for 10 years in Old Hickory and never pull up a tin can, but Scotty’s accomplished the feat in less than 20 minutes. We all laugh and curse our luck, finding it hard to believe that this actually just happened. But then again, hard-to-believe things have been happening to Scotty McCreery his whole life.
At the tender age of 16, he famously made it on to Season 10 of American Idol and ended up winning the whole shebang. Millions of fans admired his integrity and booming voice before he even graduated high school. With Clear as Day, he was the first country artist to debut at No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard 200 albums chart. He won an ACM New Artist of the Year award, had a string of radio hits and recorded another well-received album. Then the most unbelievable thing of all happened: He was let go from Universal Music Group in early 2016.
His upcoming third album’s first single, “Southern Belle,” stalled on the charts (No. 45 on Billboard‘s Country Airplay chart), and suddenly that built-in TV fan base didn’t seem so reliable anymore. “It really just comes down to business, I guess,” Scotty explains in between casts. “And you can’t have hard feelings about that, because at the end of the day it’s not personal, it’s just business.”
It put Scotty at a crossroads just as his first book, Go Big or Go Home: The Journey Toward the Dream, hit store shelves on May 3, but judging by his mood on the dock, he’s hardly worried. Scotty’s taking the long view on this one—where tough times are usually outweighed by good ones—and that outlook was reinforced during the book-writing process. 22 years old is pretty young to be putting your life story in print, but he’s quick to say this is not an autobiography—he’s still making his memories, after all. Instead, he calls it a travelogue, and says he actually waited to write it.
“They actually came to me at about 18 or 19 [years old] and said, ‘Do you want to write a book?’” says Scotty. “And I said, ‘You know, I don’t think I’ve got enough to go in those pages.’ But right now, I’ve gone through enough where I was like ‘I think I’ve got some stories here.’”
Go Big or Go Home was written before Scotty’s split with the label, but it still takes the title to heart and holds nothing back about the many ups and downs of his young career, even when the truth is embarrassing. His current situation is a bummer, he admits, but it’s just another setback to overcome. “It wasn’t all high stories,” he says. “I’ve had plenty of lows in just the five years I’ve gone through. . . . I’ve been sued, I’ve been robbed at gunpoint with a pistol on my forehead, I’ve gone through a lot. . . . Part of the book is about picking yourself up by the bootstraps and keeping on going, the other part is how to live with the highs. Hopefully it can help folks and it’s an enjoyable read.”
The book is split into 16 chapters and basically three parts: Scotty’s early life, his Idol experience and his post-Idol career, which is still a work in progress. And refreshingly, it puts his self-deprecating, sarcastic sense of humor front and center. It’s peppered with funny behind-the-scenes stories from his Idol days—like his first on-camera audition with Steven Tyler, Jennifer Lopez and Randy Jackson, which actually happened months after the opening rounds. The contestants were asked to wear the exact same outfit they wore in the beginning so it would look like everything was happening on the same day, meaning Scotty was in Milwaukee in October wearing flip flops. But the common threads running throughout the book are what he calls “The Three Fs.” “Family, faith and friends,” Scotty says. “Those are big to me but we kind of span off of that in different ways.”
His faith shows up repeatedly, like the time he asked God not to let it rain during his big Idol homecoming episode (it seemed to avoid Garner that day). Likewise, the story of his grandmother rushing the Idol stage during a commercial break to meet J-Lo shows how important family is to him, while also revealing the roots of his outgoing personality. “My Grandma Paquitta, she’s 100 percent Puerto Rican, born in San Juan, and she marches to the beat of her own drum,” Scotty explains with a loving smile.
Meanwhile, his friends continue to have a grounding effect on the young star. He describes insisting on finishing high school with his class even though he could have studied from the road, pitching on the baseball team his senior year (he’s proud of his .88 ERA), going to prom, attending college at North Carolina State University and his long-term relationship with girlfriend Gabi, who he’s known since kindergarten.
“It’s good for me,” Scotty says with pride. “She doesn’t care about the fame. She likes it, she likes to come out and see the shows and things like that, but that’s not the reason she sticks around me. At least I hope it’s not. I don’t get that vibe at all.”
The book was written with the help of Travis Thrasher, who has also worked with the Robertson clan of Duck Dynasty fame on their books. It was a different kind of storytelling experience—250 pages instead of a three-minute song—and like a day of fishing, it forced Scotty to reflect on his missteps along with his triumphs. That’s hard to do for any young man, especially one who has seen so much success so early in life, but Scotty set out to tell his whole story (up to that point), and that’s what he did.
Looking relaxed in Ray-Ban sunglasses and a Garner Magnet High School windbreaker, Scotty leans back and launches a cast out into deep water. Then he does nothing for a long while, patiently letting the bait sink to the bottom where early-season fish might be waiting. Scotty’s always thinking a few steps ahead and prefers to have a plan he can stick to. But if his rise to fame has taught him anything, it’s that things change fast and you can’t be afraid to make mistakes.
“That’s part of life,” he says with a nod of experience. “You live and you learn. I didn’t think I could write an honest book without writing about those moments. And some of them weren’t mistakes, but nonetheless they were low moments.”
Being sued by his first manager was one of those low moments. In the book, Scotty explains that early in his career he was a lot more naïve than he is now. “You jump the gun sometimes,” he says. “You’ve really got to vet things and find out who folks really are. Find out why they’re in the game, why are they with you? I’d say most folks are in it for the right reasons, but there are some snakes out there.”
He had to learn to stand up for himself and say “no,” like he did to industry mogul Jimmy Iovine, one of the most powerful men in the business. Jimmy was a mentor on Scotty’s season of Idol, and suggested the youngster sing a song that was long ago featured in an X-rated movie. When Scotty found out about the song’s origin, he put his foot down, refusing to take the stage unless the show allowed him choose another. It was a tense standoff, but Scotty prevailed. “You want to please everybody in this business, so you always want to say ‘yes’ and make people feel good, but you’ve got to watch out for your best interests,” he says. “You’ve got to stick to your guns and your morals and what makes you ‘you,’ because if you lose that, you kind of lose everything.”
The lowest of lows came late one night in the NC State apartment he shared with his friends, when gun-toting thugs barged in the front door, shouting and making demands. The intruders only got away with smart phones and wallets, perhaps indicating they busted into the wrong house, and luckily no one was seriously hurt. But having the barrel of a loaded gun trained on your head leaves scars, and now Scotty is leery of unexpected guests and unlocked doors.
He calls the experience “pretty traumatic”—an understatement if there ever was one—and admits it changed his perspective. But dealing with the robbery’s fallout may have steeled his reserve for his current test of fortitude, which happened so recently it didn’t even make the book: Getting dropped from Universal. That setback was a shock, but Scotty says it doesn’t seem like such a big deal in contrast. The announcement was made in February, right in the middle of a promotional cycle touting his return to Idol for the show’s big finale.
“I found out in L.A.,” he recounts. “I was out there taping the Idol show, mentoring the contestants and singing duets with them, and I had dinner that night with a guy who works for the company that owns Idol. He just kind of broke the news to me, and it’s just one of those things where it’s a business decision.”
Scotty’s single “Southern Belle” had failed to crack country’s Top 40, but his previous album sold well and a new one was almost completely done. It was even more confusing because the label seemed on board with where his new music was headed creatively.
“We were just trying something new,” Scotty continues. “We just came off my biggest record as far as singles go—we had back-to-back Top 10s—so things were pretty cool, things were alright. . . . We were making a record that everybody was pretty pumped up about.”
In cases like this, it’s not uncommon for the unfinished album to be totally scrapped, but Scotty says that won’t happen. He struck a deal to take most of his new songs with him, so all that work won’t be in vain. “The pieces on this record I was most proud of, I’m getting back,” he promises. “I’m making sure I get them back. I’m not gonna let that happen.” Plus, he says new label opportunities are already presenting themselves. He won’t be standing still for long.
Back at the lake, Scotty exudes positive vibes despite his uncertain circumstances. “It’s looking pretty bright for the future,” he says. “A lot of times they say you’ve got to go through the valleys before you can reach the top of the mountain, so I’m hoping we come out of this strong. The day I got the news I was just a sad puppy dog. I was like, ‘What the heck? We’ve done all this, we’ve had so much success, where is this coming from?’ But then the day after I was like, ‘Man, I’m done feeling sorry for myself. I’m a blessed kid. I’m 22, I get to make music for a living, I get to travel the country—I’ve got nothing to be sad about.’”
The fishing doesn’t improve much, unless you count not catching any more tin cans, and even switching to night crawlers doesn’t help. But that’s why the call it “fishing,” not “catching,” and a few hours of relaxation was a welcome change of pace for Scotty. Plans are made to try again soon, a little earlier in the day and later into the warm months, it’s agreed.
Then, as the lines come in for the last time, a group of mallard ducks swoops in and belly flops on the patch of water just in front of us, quacking happily. It’s a serene reminder that life does indeed go on, and there’s always another place to land. As it turns out, that old adage was right after all—bad fishing can still make for a pretty good day.
portrait photos by David McClister; fishing photos by Carissa Riccardi