Scotty McCreery Brings the Joy to New Album, Writing and Singing 'What Feels Good' (Exclusive)

The "Cab in a Solo" singer lets go of his "competitive side" and allows himself to "try new things": "I've realized I get to have fun for a living"

<p>Jeff Ray</p> Scotty McCreery

Jeff Ray

Scotty McCreery
  • Scotty McCreery released his fifth album, Rise & Fall, on Friday

  • The country star (and American Idol winner!) is now 30 and both a husband and father

  • "Career-wise, I’m not sure I’ve ever been at a more thankful place, he says

Gone are the mustache and goatee that have long hidden some of Scotty McCreery’s boyish face — which isn’t so boyish anymore. He’s 30 now, and he has lots of grown-up-ness to show for it: a six-year marriage, recent fatherhood, new membership in the Grand Ole Opry, and a lengthening list of No. 1 hits.

But if you need any further proof that McCreery has truly come into his own — not only as an artist but also as a man — then lend an ear to Rise & Fall, his just-released fifth album that brims with a newfound confidence and maturity.

McCreery knows it’s different, and he knows why.

“Where I’m at, as a man and a husband and dad … I mean, life is just great,” he tells PEOPLE. “Career-wise, I’m not sure I’ve ever been at a more thankful place. I’m just enjoying where I’m at, and I think making this record, I allowed myself to try new things because of that.”

Related: Tears, Cheers, and Musical Heroes: Scotty McCreery Enjoys Unforgettable Opry Induction

Part of the process, McCreery admits, meant giving up what he calls his “competitive side” with other artists. This time around, “I didn’t want to put up any guardrails — no rules,” he says. “Let’s just go write what feels good.”

McCreery has co-written 12 of the 13 tracks, and that mindset has naturally filled the album with feel-good music — memorable melodies, sharp lyrics and delicious turns of phrases that make you smile even when McCreery is singing about heartbreak. Case in point: “Cab in a Solo,” the record’s lead-off single that just earned McCreery his sixth chart-topper.

From the start, the rollicking leadoff track, “Little More Gone,” announces that McCreery is raring to take his ample vocal gifts out for a souped-up joy ride. Though his career has kept him mostly in the tenor range, fans well know how low he can go, and “Little More Gone” reveals that he’s capable of a falsetto, too.

“We’re in three different octaves in that one song,” he says. “That’s my first time ever doing that.”

Like “Cab in a Solo,” the song — about on-again, off-again romance — is one of several on the album that have nothing to do with McCreery’s happily married life, and he says he’s been reveling in that artistic freedom.

“It’s not so autobiographical,” he says of Rise & Fall. “I was making up stories, playing the role, putting puzzle pieces together that weren’t exactly my life, and I had a lot of fun doing it. Heartbreak is a huge part of country music, and some of my favorite country songs are those songs. I don’t just want to sing songs from my life.”

When he does, though, he makes them count. “Red Letter Blueprint,” for instance, is an inspiring expression of McCreery’s strong faith, and it’s not hard to picture McCreery locked in an embrace with his wife, Gabi, swaying to “Slow Dance.” (Yes, McCreery confirms, they’ve taken the sweet love ballad for a kitchen spin in their Raleigh, North Carolina, home.)

Related: Who Is Scotty McCreery's Wife? All About Gabi Dugal McCreery

Perhaps the album’s most poignant cut is “Love Like This,” a song that was born soon after Gabi gave birth to their son Avery, now 18 months old. On that day, McCreery thought to snap a photo of the hospital room number just in case he wanted to use it in a lyric, and sure enough, it came in handy, along with the recorded time of birth: “It was 4:30 on a Monday morning / a miracle in room 235.”

“I wanted to have those details,” he says.

The lyrics also masterfully capture the new dad’s avalanche of emotions: “I’m looking at you, looking at him / And I don’t have a clue what this feeling is / But watching you give our baby boy a kiss / Now I know I’ve never known a love like this.”

His wife, he says, gave the song the ultimate approval. “Yeah, she definitely shed a few tears,” McCreery reports.

<p>Jeff Ray</p> Scotty McCreery

Jeff Ray

Scotty McCreery

Related: Scotty McCreery Caps Off a Banner Year with His New Baby Boy: 'Instant, Unconditional Love'

Avery also takes a featured role in “The Porch,” another standout track that fittingly caps the album. The story song is a heartwarming expression of McCreery’s growing understanding of life’s rhythms — a wisdom, he knows now, that can come only with age. He says he can’t help but chuckle at himself when he reflects on the start of his recording career, at age 17, after he won American Idol.

“People were like, ‘What’s he gonna sing about? He hasn’t lived any life,’” he recalls. “And I thought, I’ve got plenty to sing about! But nowadays, I look back at that 17-year-old, and I’m like, what the heck was I singing about? I hadn’t lived any life. Now I’ve lived a lot of ups and downs.”

That recognition — and acceptance — is the reason he plucked “rise and fall” from the lyrics of a wistful lost-love song, “Fall of Summer,” and used it as the album’s title. “It hasn’t just been smooth sailing by any means,” McCreery says about his life and career, “and all that plays into the creative process.”

This time around, that process involved an epic three-day writers’ retreat that McCreery organized with his longtime co-writer/producer Frank Rogers. The setting was a vacation home that McCreery and his wife recently built in the shadow of the North Carolina mountain where he popped the question in 2017. (That memorable spot is also featured on the Rise & Fall album cover.)

“I’d always wanted to do it,” McCreery says of the writers’ retreat. “I love to write with everybody in town and try new things, but I definitely feel like I’ve found my crew that gets me, and I get them, and they know what I’m looking for. We were around the fire with guitars, maybe a drink or cigar. It was just hanging out, and while we’re here, let’s write some country songs. It was a blast.”

<p>Jeff Ray</p> Scotty McCreery's Rise & Fall

Jeff Ray

Scotty McCreery's Rise & Fall

That seems to be a recurring theme for the artist at the moment. As grown-up as he feels, he says he’s also simply delighting in the fun that his career is bringing him.

“I’ve realized I get to have fun for a living,” he says, “and I get to make up stuff on my guitar, and people care enough to come out and buy the records and go to the shows. I think I still have the same excitement that I had when I was 17. I know a little more now. I’m a little more experienced, a little more comfortable. But the excitement is the same. Especially making this album, I had more fun than ever before.”

And, he adds, “it’s very fun to sing. I’m having more fun live right now than ever.”

McCreery is out touring now with scheduled dates through the summer.

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