In the end, with Blake Shelton, it’s all about the voice … and without any need to punctuate that phrase with quote marks or italics or a capital T and V. The first and last reason he arrived on America’s doorstep was that baritone, which resonates with an authority that seems handed down from a different era of country music, no matter how contemporary the musical settings built up around it became. It perfectly fits serious songs from “The Baby” to “God’s Country,” but even when Shelton is singing a rowdy party anthem, there’s something in his tone that makes it feel like a grown-ass rowdy party anthem.
And remember when he cut off his long locks back in the 2000s, a few years into his music stardom, and what a relief that was? It wasn’t so much because the mullet had gone out of fashion (although it had). It was because Shelton needed a haircut that matched that voice, not something as incongruous as flowing curls. When he finally started looking like he sang, all finally felt right with the world.
More from Variety
But, all right, we lied — it’s not all about the voice, after all. It’s also about, yes, “The Voice,” and about the great comedic presence he brought to that series for an astonishing 12 years and 23 seasons. It’s about an energy he brought to the NBC series that somehow seemed laconic and highly energized all at once. Dean Martin was one of his few non-country idols, and although it might seem sacrilegious, if anything, Shelton might have actually improved on that kind of seemingly effortless ability to maintain an aura of near-constant levity while also having what it takes to keep things grounded as a consummate pro.
And then let’s not forget his speaking voice. Who, among us, after hearing that irresistible spoken twang almost every week for the last dozen years — in broadcast network prime time, a place where accents have not always been welcome — hasn’t had a moment’s temptation to move to his native Oklahoma, just to live in a place where theoretically everybody talks like that? (No need to raise your hand if you disagree.)
Now, tourists will think of that voice every time they step across or around Shelton’s new star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It won’t soon exit their minds even if the singer is calling it quits with “The Voice,” years after the show’s only other true stalwart, Adam Levine, made his own exit. It feels as momentous in TV terms as Mark Harmon leaving “NCIS,” losing someone who spent quite this long pushing America’s buttons.
I don’t remember a lot of the exact moments I felt somebody who was bubbling under was going to be a star, or ought to be, but I recall it to the second with Shelton. It was 2003, about seven years before he even made his debut on “The Voice.” I was on the phone with him to discuss the second No. 1 country single of his career, out of the almost 30 he’s had to date. The song in question, “The Baby,” was a classic country “story-song,” the kind he built his early career on, this one a legitimately weepy ballad involving a beloved mother who is dying, while the narrator, the (grown) baby of the family, tries to move heaven and earth to get home to see her before she passes. Having heard the solemnity of his delivery, I expected to encounter someone who was as serious as the song. “That song even makes me want to cry,” he told me, “and I’m one of the coldest people I know.” I still haven’t forgotten stifling a guffaw at the unexpected irreverence of that line. The guy I’d assumed was just another hat act (yes, he had an ever-present Stetson to go with the mullet back then), the singer who’d just jerked my tears, was going to jerk laughs, too. And to think it only took another seven years or so for the rest of the world to realize they couldn’t wait to see what popped out of his mouth.
“My first three hits were all story-songs,” he recalled to me years later, looking at the trajectory of his music career. Before there was “The Baby,” there was “Austin,” his first No. 1, an earnest, bittersweet song about a fellow who definitely leaves TMI on his ex’s answering machine, and then “Ol’ Red,” a rather more rambunctious tune about a jailbird whose knowledge of prison dogs aided in an escape. (That one stopped short at No. 14, mysteriously, although it remains one of the most enduring staples in his live show, popular enough to have later inspired the name for his five-story Nashville bar, Ole Red.) “When you only have three singles out and they’re all three story-songs, you definitely are that guy to people,” he says.
His fourth No. 1, though, “Some Beach” — pun intended — proved to be one of the funniest country hits of all time and paved the way for the persona that would bloom on television. There was still ground to cover to establish the breadth of a career, though. When I was talking with him in 2010 about “Who Are You When I’m Not Looking,” he exulted, “It’s the first true love song that I’ve had at radio in … maybe ever. But it works for me because it has a little bit of a sense of humor to it. It’s hard for me to find love songs that I would want to sing, because I never want to be cheesy or full of shit.” Not to worry — the swoon factor had arrived, and was here to stay.
Shelton has benefitted from having two great producers and song-pickers over the course of his career, first the legendary Bobby Braddock, and then for a longer period since, Scott Hendricks, who said a few years ago that he listened to as many as 3,000 submissions per album. As more country artists have declared themselves singer-songwriters, whether they contribute a lot in the writers’ room or not, Shelton has done almost all outside material, making him the dream “get” for burgeoning Music Row writers. “One of my favorite artists ever is Conway Twitty,” Shelton said. “When you listen to his whole career, you think, how did the guy who sang this also sing that and make it all make sense in the end? I think the answer is, Conway just loved to sing a great song. And I’ve always considered myself more of a singer than an ‘artist.’ I’ve been on both sides of writing and singing, and I love singing 10 times more. So when it comes time for making records, I just want to record things that are a challenge for me, that are interesting, that are different from each other.”
He was part of perhaps the last generation that could grow up only listening to one genre. “I’m a guy who basically only listened to country music my entire life, outside of ‘Macarena’ or one of those songs that gets to be larger than life and you can’t help but hear it everywhere you go,” he admitted. “Being on ‘The Voice,’ I’ve been exposed to so many genres, so many sounds, so many things that I didn’t like that I’ve found out that I do like. It probably started with Adam’s music. I was getting to know this guy so I better know something about his music — and fell in love with his records. … I definitely think that hearing and performing some of these songs I’d never been exposed to obviously crept into what I do, too. Maybe that’s why we end up putting a wah-wah pedal on a banjo.” The country world has been the beneficiary of his expanded tastes, but also of the narrow focus he started off with that so clearly established him as the real deal.
Shelton has mixed — mostly happy — feelings about leaving “The Voice.” He recently told People magazine, “The holdup over the years has been that it’s a hard thing for me to let go of. I’ve been here literally since the first minute,” he says. “When I started on ‘The Voice,’ that was 10 years into my career as a country artist. I never really made it to the A-level of country artists until I became a coach. The show did a hell of a lot more for me than I brought to the table at the time.” No more annual calculations of how touring season fits between two TV seasons. “Gwen (Stefani, whom he wed in 2021) and I have done so much traveling and touring and work the first half of our lives that now we’re like, ‘Hey, I’m good to put my sweatpants on at 6 p.m. and watch ‘Ozark’ eight times.’”
He’s going to be a homebody in Oklahoma? OK. Still, he seems a little too ambitious to settle for just touring and recording (or “Barmegeddon,” the series he produces that admittedly takes up little of his time), and for getting in all that promised “Ozark” catching-up time. If Stefani notices him suddenly impulsively trying to swivel their couch around, she may know it’s time for him to head back to Hollywood.
Blake Shelton receives his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Friday.
WHEN: 11:30 a.m., May 12
WHERE: 6212 Hollywood Blvd.
Best of Variety