Want to see a singer sweat? Just quiz Blake Shelton about how his music career began. Answer: when Blake was 8 years old, his mother entered him in a beauty pageant talent show.
"It was the first time I stepped on stage," offers Shelton, cringing at the memory. "And it was with 50 little girls! I was humiliated. I told Mom I didn't want to sing any more."
Five years later, the Ada, Oklahoma kid finally took the stage again, singing on country shows. He learned the basic guitar chords and wrote his first song. "I thought it was cool at the time, but, really, it was a piece of crap," he admits.
When he was 17, playing honky-tonks and local shows, Blake met Mae Boren Axton, co-writer of "Heartbreak Hotel," and patron to struggling artists. She suggested a move to Nashville. Fresh out of high school in 1994, Blake heeded the call, packing guitar and dreams for the journey to Music City.
His first Nashville lesson was discovering that as a performer, he made a good painter. He called Mae, asking what he should do. Her advice: "You can come and paint my house for me."
That stint led to another Axton encounter: Mae's singer/songwriter son Hoyt, who was temporarily living there in his tour bus. Both Axtons offered music biz survival tips, keeping Shelton focused as he played writers' nights gigs at Nashville clubs. Legendary writer Bobby Braddock heard about the new kid on the block, met him and worked with him.
The first single, "Austin," written by David Kent and Kirsti Manna, hit number one on the country charts. Blake co-wrote four of the songs on the Braddock-produced Warner Bros. album that swings from honky-tonk to social problems.
"It ain't all about sunshine and flowers," he observes. "Because it's real people and they want to hear real life."
So, Blake, singing at a beauty pageant isn't such a bad a way to launch a career, huh?
"That's a good way not to start off," he insists, his face quickly blushing after all these years.