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For months, Scotty McCreery had been ringing up customers just like any other high school cashier at the Lowes Foods in Garner.
But one day last February, store manager Terry Mascaro noticed that everything had changed. Scotty had just been featured on TV as a singing hopeful for this season of "American Idol," and Lowes patrons had taken notice.
"Once they realized who it was, they all went to his register," Mascaro recalled. Four checkout lines were soon empty, while Scotty's stretched 30 customers deep - all the way to the back of the store.
For hundreds of Scotty McCreery photos and all our Scotty and "American Idol" coverage from this season, go to www.newsobserver.com/scottywatch. Also, follow us on Twitter for the latest on Scotty: @thadogburn and @warmtv.
Scotty, 17, patiently posed for pictures and signed autographs for all of them. But the scene was a stark reminder that the life he had known - high school baseball player, member of the school chorus and the church youth group, afterschool employee at the grocery store - was going away. He was on his way to celebrity and would soon be singing for a national audience on TV's top-rated show.
Since that day, Scotty has temporarily relocated to Los Angeles for "Idol's" live shows. He wasn't allowed to return home until a week ago, when he got a hero's welcome as one of the season's three "Idol" finalists. In Hollywood, he has attended movie premieres and met celebrities at events for the show. He has been mentored by the likes of Sheryl Crow, Beyonce andLady Gaga.
This week, he'll be in the "American Idol" finals, hoping to be named Wednesday night as the show's 10th winner.
All this for a small-town boy more accustomed to hanging out with friends, cheering for the N.C. State Wolfpack and getting sweet tea and fried chicken at Bojangles'.
"It's kind of crazy how fast things have happened," said Kyle Wiggins, a Garner High School senior and Scotty's best friend.
Kyle, who has talked to his friend every day in California, said Scotty is trying to stay grounded. His deep religious faith helps, according to Kyle. Scotty, a member of First Baptist Church of Garner, reads his Bible regularly and is never seen without his cross necklace.
"He knows where he came from and who he is," Kyle said.
Because Scotty is a minor, he has to have one of his parents with him in California, usually his mother, Judy. After a brief period in which the 13 finalists had to live in a Hollywood mansion, Scotty and his mother now have their own apartment.
One homesick teen
Although "Idol" has been a once-in-a-lifetime experience for the McCreery family, there have been plenty of sacrifices. Mike McCreery, Scotty's father, has shuttled back and forth to Los Angeles, attending some "Idol" live shows but also taking care of things at home and in his job as senior manufacturing systems analyst at Schneider Electric in Raleigh.
Judy has been away from her real-estate work with Fonville Morisey and the tanning salon she owns in Clayton. Scotty is missing this year's Garner High School baseball season, where he likely would be pitching for the Trojans.
He is tutored in Los Angeles, along with his fellow finalist, 16-year-old Lauren Alaina of Rossville, Ga. Though he's doing well in his junior year - Judy is happy to tell you that he made the honor roll - it's just not the same.
Then there are all the "Idol" restrictions. Producers control much about what the family members can do and to whom they are allowed to talk. For this story, The N&O;'s only access was brief snippets of conversation during last week's visit to Garner.
It has all made Scotty and Judy terribly homesick. He famously said on "Idol" that he would "kiss the grass" if he made the show's final three and got to come to Garner for the homecoming trip. He did, several times, during the whirlwind visit May 14. The "Idol" cameras were rolling.
That trip reinforced how much different Scotty's life is now. Crowds gathered to see the teen all day, from his early-morning visits to radio stations to a secret nighttime drop-in at the Garner High prom. About 30,000 people gathered in Garner's Lake Benson Park to catch a glimpse of the hometown hero and hear him sing. "Idol" producers controlled most every stop, sometimes making Scotty repeat events for the cameras. He wasn't even allowed to spend the night in his own bed, though the camera crew filmed him lying on it briefly.
"That's the doubled-edged sword of it all," said Allison Byrd, a McCreery family friend who works at Judy's tanning salon, At the Beach. "They miss Garner. With Scotty, it's not, 'I can't wait to get out of this town.' What he's saying about the town - it's heartfelt."
'Who is that?'
As with most small towns where somebody becomes famous, Garner is full of people eager to talk about their Scotty connections. Some knew him from the grocery store. Others met him when he was singing at church. A few caught a baseball from him one time.
Most of the stories describe Scotty as a wholesome boy next door - but one who always had something special about him, too. Jaime Baker, Scotty's kindergarten teacher at Timber Drive Elementary School in Garner, remembers a self-assured youngster who shook her hand on the first day of class and said, "My name is Scott McCreery. Nice to meet you, Mrs. Baker."
Cathy King, who taught Scotty in eighth grade at West Lake Middle School in Apex, had her students write a biography of themselves. She still has part of Scotty's: "My philosophy of life is simple. Please God, work, provide for your family and help others."
Scotty also showed his musical side back then. King remembers him bringing his guitar in and performing during an eighth-grade awards ceremony. The song choice foreshadowed Scotty's future: "The Time of My Life" by David Cook, the winner of the seventh season of "American Idol."
"Scotty is extraordinary - he was the very first day I saw him," said Gary Epperson, who began teaching Scotty guitar at age 9. Epperson and his band, Gavinhart, got to join Scotty on stage for the homecoming concert.
As he grew older, Scotty performed often at church. He won "Clayton Idol," a local singing contest. And he starred last year in Garner High's production of the musical "Bye Bye Birdie." Of course, Scotty played the role of Conrad Birdie, a thinly disguised version of Elvis Presley - Scotty's own childhood idol.
His performance was a revelation to many who hadn't heard Scotty sing yet, Garner High Principal Drew Cook said.
"My wife ... looked over at me and said, 'Who in the world is that?' " Cook recalled.
Looking for dirt
Still, Scotty didn't tell many people he was going to try out for "Idol." He traveled last summer to auditions in Milwaukee, where he sang Josh Turner's "Your Man" and Travis Tritt's "Put Some Drive In Your Country" before "Idol" judges Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler. The deep voice coming out of the young face surprised the judges, with Tyler, the Aerosmith front man, uttering an obscenity that producers had to bleep. (Scotty good-naturedly said it was nothing he hadn't heard before at school.)
Scotty passed that first hurdle, and producers obviously thought he might stick around for a while. They sent a film crew to Garner to shoot background footage and to interview Judy McCreery and Garner High baseball coach Derek Goffena.
Once the shows began in January, and Scotty started advancing, signs boosting the native son were placed on the side of nearly every road and on the marquee of most fast-food restaurants. Members of the high school's "Blue Crew" student booster club have been interviewed by local and national media. Even The National Enquirer has called around town trying to find any dirt on Scotty. (There doesn't appear to be any.)
Scotty didn't have a serious girlfriend before heading to Hollywood, Kyle said, and he has been too busy for romance during the show. "But he's got all kinds of options now," Kyle joked, noting the legions of teen girls who now say they want to marry the heartthrob.
Though "Idol" put this year's contestants through a variety of themes, such as movie songs or tunes from artists in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Scotty tried his best to keep with the country sound he loves. That didn't surprise Epperson, his longtime guitar teacher.
"The other kids wanted to learn Green Day, 3 Doors Down and the Goo Goo Dolls' songs," Epperson said. "Scotty wanted to learn Tim McGraw's 'Live Like You Were Dying.'"
A country star?
On Wednesday night, Scotty or Lauren, also a country singer, will take the title. But even winning "American Idol" is no guarantee of success in the harsh and fickle music business. For every Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson - the two biggest stars to emerge from the "Idol" universe - there's a Taylor Hicks or Lee DeWyze, both former winners who had limited music careers after the show.
Following "Idol," some contestants tour for a few years on the state fair circuit. Others have parlayed their TV show fame to Broadway, such as High Point's Fantasia Barrino, who was in "The Color Purple," and Raleigh's Clay Aiken, who appeared in "Monty Python's Spamalot."
Regardless of the outcome Wednesday, Scotty will be performing for the immediate future. This summer, he'll join this season's Top 11 finalists for the "American Idols Live!" tour, which will be at Raleigh's RBC Center on July 27. He'll then record an album for "Idol's" production company.
Mike Wheless of country radio station WQDR and Epperson, the guitar teacher, think Scotty may have a perfect niche because country music doesn't have a teenage male singer right now.
"He's George Strait, Alan Jackson and Josh Turner all rolled into one," Wheless said.
Epperson said Scotty stands out from all the up-and-coming "long-necked, hat-wearing country crooners."
"Personally, I think Scotty is better than all of them," Epperson said. "And Scotty is just 17."