There’s a deep respect in country music for the performers who made the genre and continued shaping it throughout the decades. It’s why you see icons like Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire — now legends in their own right — paying tribute to artists like Loretta Lynn.
Blake Shelton might not have achieved Dolly Parton status yet, but he’s well on his way. The country star has released 12 studio albums and more than 50 singles — over half of which have gone to No. 1 on country music charts.
He’s now spent more than two decades in the country music spotlight and has achieved other stardom from being the winningest judge on NBC’s The Voice, where he’s been a judge since the show began in 2011. And though talent might have taken him far, Shelton said it’s his study of country music that set him up for success.
Shelton moved to Nashville as a teenager
Shelton was born in Ada, Oklahoma, and grew up a country music fan, thanks in part to his older brother Richie, who died in 1990 in a car accident. Shelton looked up to his brother as a hero and took on his fandom of Hank Williams Jr., Waylon Jennings, Bob Seger, and more, according to The Boot.
At the age of 16, Shelton was playing the local bar circuit and won the Denbo Diamond Award, a top award for young entertainers in his home state, Biography reports. After graduating from high school, Shelton moved to Nashville to pursue his country music dreams.
He started by selling songs he’d written to recording houses in town and eventually landed a solo recording contract. In 2001, he released his first single, “Austin,” which flew to No. 1 on the country music charts.
He became a ‘student’ of the industry and how it works
“I’ve always been such a student of country music: The country music industry and the artists and how it works and the history of it — at least the history of it that I’ve been interested in, which is from like the ‘80s on,” Shelton said during the interview.
The “Ol’ Red” artist went on to say that, in large part, it informed his views on the lifespan of music careers and wanting to make sure that he makes room for younger performers when the time is right. However, that student approach is likely why he’s also been such a success in the last two decades.
Shelton counts Hank Williams Jr. and Earl Thomas Conley as inspirations
Shelton counts several country music legends among his inspirations. He’s been known to tip his hat toward George Strait and Garth Brooks, but many of his favorite sources of inspiration date back to before those two were gracing country music stages in the 1990s. In a 2014 Q&A with People, Shelton said his favorite song of all time is Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
“It just covers it all for my lifestyle,” Shelton said at the time. “I try to think of myself as an outlaw, a badass. And this song covers all that.” In the same interview and others since then, Shelton has also given credit to Earl Thomas Conley, another country great who helped Shelton write “All Over Me,” his second hit single.
“He has a song called ‘What I’d Say’ that really takes me back,” Shelton told People in a separate interview.
“I’d listen to that thing a million times, just by myself in my studio apartment in Nashville, just trying to sing that. I wanted to sing like him, because I knew if I could, I maybe could make it one day.”
He doesn’t write many songs anymore, but Gwen Stefani said he has an ear for hits
Shelton gives credit where it’s due, but he now has earned the right to be the next generation’s guide. As a coach on The Voice for all 21 seasons so far, members of Shelton’s teams have won the singing competition eight times, making him the most successful coach in the show’s history, according to NBC.
Though he doesn’t write songs as often as he used to in his early career, his wife, Gwen Stefani, said he’s still a trusted collaborator and trustworthy source of critique when she’s working on her own new music.
“He has a really good ear for hits or just songs that are the ones that we all like,” Stefani said, per Taste of Country. “So, [I] definitely lean on him a lot.” As it happens with many icons in their field, it would appear that the student has become one of the masters.