A sinewy, slow-talking pipe fitter from Grit, Va., Ricky Van Shelton--who will be at the Crazy Horse Steak House in Santa Ana tonight--came to Nashville with big dreams and watched them come true: His debut album (called, appropriately enough, “Wild Eyed Dream”) sold more than a million copies, and his follow-up, “Living Proof,” is rapidly following suit.
“I feel just like a kid in a candy shop,” he said last week on the phone from Las Vegas, where he was sharing a bill with Reba McEntire. Like her, he has become a standard bearer for the “new traditional” movement in country music, recording songs originally performed by such classic acts as the Wilburn Brothers (“Somebody’s Back in Town,”) Patsy Cline (“He’s Got You”) and Jim Reeves (“From a Jack to a King.”)
Raised in the Pentecostal Holiness Church (“our church had lots of foot-stomper music”), Van Shelton, 37, “first heard country when I was running around with my older brother. The feel, the melody and the heart of it was so much like gospel, I immediately began loving it. I knew: That’s what I wanted to do.
“I never went to a football game, a baseball game or a prom while I was in school. All I did was play, play, play.”
He did find time to get married, though. When he and his wife moved to Tennessee in 1984, she was instrumental in getting him his big break: She became friends with a prominent columnist from the Nashville Banner and gave the columnist one of Van Shelton’s demo tapes. The columnist in turn gave the tape to Rick Blackburn, the head of CBS Records in Nashville. Intrigued by what he heard, Blackburn attended Van Shelton’s live show. He offered the smoky-voiced crooner a contract on the spot.
The next thing America knew, Van Shelton’s first single, “Crime of Passion,” was charging up the charts. The next three singles from “Wild Eyed Dream"--"Somebody Lied,” “Life Turned Her That Way” and “Don’t We All Have the Right"--all went straight to No. 1, and there’s been no looking back since.
Mixing a touch of rockabilly in with his traditional stylings has given Van Shelton a leg up with younger listeners. Women, meanwhile, seem captured by his smoldering good looks, his strong jaw and his blue, bedroom eyes. He has already been featured in Vogue and Elle (though he continues to insist: “I’m country and don’t know how much those magazines mean”).
Wednesday night--country or not--he’ll make his “Tonight Show” debut.
Future plans call for a third album, then a Christmas record that’s “going to be a Christmas production,” he said. “Not country, not rock ‘n’ roll. Christmas music, which is really its own kind of music, with strings and its own kind of production. Just like Perry Como and Bing Crosby used to do.”
Meanwhile, he has been playing upward of 150 live dates a year. Beyond that, “there’s a helluva lot of (promotional) work behind the scenes,” he said, “a lot more to it than the public ever sees. But I’m not complaining.
“Up until the year before last, I’d never paid more for a car than $500. I never had nothing.
“Still, if it all went away tomorrow, I wouldn’t mind. I know about hard work and surviving. Once you’ve got that, there’s nothing that’ll scare you.”
Ricky Van Shelton sings tonight at 7 and 10 at the Crazy Horse Steak House, 1580 Brookhollow Drive, Santa Ana. Tickets: $29.50. Information: (714) 549-1512.