Interview: Scotty McCreery talks Christmas, Elvis and college

When Scotty McCreery entered a Nashville studio to record his first holiday set, “Christmas With Scotty McCreery,” any dreams of a white Christmas were solely in his head.

“We recorded it in a heat wave,” says McCreery, who tweeted a photo of himself this summer in the studio with a furry Santa Claus hat perched on his head. “It was 105 in Nashville. I was singing the songs in shorts and flip-flops.” But he and his crew tried to create a festive mood. “We had a Christmas tree in the studio, Christmas lights on the mike stand. My tour manager brought in Christmas cookies and cupcakes.”

For the Oct. 16 release, which includes traditional holiday standards as well as two originals, the 2011 “American Idol” champ “knew we had to get creative” on these oft-recorded songs. “The main thing we talked about together with the band was we wanted to be different, not just to be different, but to be creative and different in a good way. Put a stamp on these songs.”

The biggest surprise to his casual fans may be the way he channels Elvis Presley on his version of “Santa Claus Is Back In Town.” He brings a Presley-like swagger to “Jingle Bells,” but he reserves his full lip-quivering, hip-shaking imitation for “Santa Claus,” even throwing in a bit of Presley”s classic cover of “C.C. Rider” in for good measure.

“I was an Elvis freak. That”s all I listened to growing up,” he says. I wasn”t listening to the Backstreet Boys,” he says. “It just got ingrained in me to where it would come out in my songs.”

The track wasn”t originally intended for the album.  “We did that in one take. The drummer [plays] in a huge Elvis production that tours across the country,” McCreery recalls. “He broke into ‘C.C. Rider.” It wasn”t planned at all. We thought we”d cut it and not put it on the album. We were high-fiving and laughing and we decided to put it on the album.”

When told that the sultry take may make his fans see a new, sexy side of him, the 19-year old reverts back to his shy self and just replied. “Dadgum.”

McCreery has been singing another of the album”s tracks, “O Holy Night,” since he was in elementary school. “I was singing it much higher then,” he laughs. “It really was difficult. As a kid, I didn”t know anything about the technical side. It was for the children”s choir.”

He included the song as a nod to his grandmother and to his first public performance of the song when he was in 4th or 5th grade. “My grandma is tough to impress. I”d sing at a competition and she”d tell me ‘ That wasn”t so good.” When I got done, my grandma said, ‘That was beautiful.” My mom was videotaping, so she was concentrating on that. Coming from my grandma, that meant a lot. We were thinking about her when we recorded it and the memories that we had that night.”

The album”s two originals struck the right chord with McCreery the first time he heard them. One of them seemed destined to end up in his hands.

“The week before ‘Christmas In Heaven” got sent to me,  I was writing a song called ‘Christmas In Heaven” about my grandfather. He passed away a few years ago. It had some of the same lyrical ideas. It wasn”t a week later that my choir director was at a conference and told some folks who she is and that she knew me. They said, ‘I have the perfect song.” It gave me chills. It was a God thing. No question is was going on the album.”

The second original tune, “Christmas Is Coming Around Again” deals with a couple with children going through a divorce, who reunite after the Christmas spirit hits them. “That”s about the message,” McCreery says. “There might be a family out there hurting and maybe this can help them.”

McCreery is already collecting tunes for his next studio album, which he hopes to release in Spring 2013. He”s writing for the album with two top Nashville songwriters, Ashley Gorley and Kelley Lovelace. “My songwriting craft isn”t perfect yet,” he says. “Hopefully it can get there.”

In the meantime, he is half-way done with his first semester at North Carolina State University in Raleigh,  just down the road from his hometown of Garner.  He takes classes a few days a week and then is out on the road opening for Brad Paisley on the weekends.

College has been a blast so far, he says. “I”ve loving every second of it. As far as people freaking out”  when they see him, he notes, “it hasn”t been that way at all. Maybe they”d want a handshake or a ‘hey.” I wore my cap pulled down the first couple of days, but after a few days, I didn”t even worry about the hat and sunglasses any more.”