Former contestant not an idol man

Phil Stacey’s life is just full of surprises.

Fans of American Idol will remember him as the shaven-headed country-singing Naval man on Season six of the show. And while much of his shocks have come since his debut there, it’s just life, sometimes, that astonishes him.

The birth of his two daughters, Chloe and McKayla, certainly took him rather famously by surprise. He missed both events; the first due to his duties for the U.S. Navy and the second because she came two weeks early during his “Idol” stint.

But what might be most surprising is that the 30-year-old Kentucky-born former music minister, who wasn’t allowed to listen to pop music as a child, now has a record deal with the very company that scouted him as a teen.

Lyric Street, a division of Disney’s Buena Vista Music Group, is flying high on the charts with best-selling act Rascal Flatts. The group was No. 2 in record sales across all genres at the end of 2007. But newcomer Stacey isn’t doing so bad himself, with a No. 8 self-titled album and a single, “If You Didn’t Love Me,” ascending the charts.

The key difference between him and other “American Idol” where-are-they-now types like Justin Guarini and Nikki McKibbin, he says, is that even on TV he has always just played himself.

“My musical performances are generally about who I am,” Stacey said. So when everyone heard about McKayla’s birth while he competed on “Idol” or saw his wife in the audience every night, they got the real heart of this self-professed family man. “If somebody sees my family, they see who I am.”

And that’s reflected in both the kind of music he writes,like the song “Old Glory” he composed while in the Navy,and the music he records. While he didn’t pen his new hit, he fell in love with it immediately.

“I’m a songwriter at heart, but I knew I wasn’t going to get a chance to write for this record based on a conversation I had with my label,” Stacey said. Touring and other responsibilities simply didn’t leave him time. “I wanted to work with a lot of these people, these songwriters, and they brought me a lot of songs from some of these people I mentioned. I heard it and I was like, ‘These are the words I want to say to her. I didn’t write it, but, if I did, this is how I would say it.’”

“Old Glory” might be his biggest shock yet. He’s played it live and in radio chat shows. But while it’s never been recorded,it has received such a strong grassroots response from fans that the label asked why they hadn’t heard about the song.

“I never thought anybody was going to like it!” Stacey laughed. “But a few months ago I found myself out of songs with a lot of time left in a concert and I started just playing songs that I’d written.”

Blame that on his wife, who came back from a Bon Jovi show excited about the non-stop music and power of the performance. So Stacey took his patter down a notch and upped the amps. It might have been a mistake if not for the audience response.A prolonged standing ovation followed his performance of the song at the Grand Ole Opry. “Nobody understands why. It’s not like it fits any form,” he said.

But maybe Bon Jovi did Stacey a favor in return for the devotion he gave them in his youth when his father wouldn’t allow him to listen to pop music.

“My brother and I snuck in a Bon Jovi album and my father caught us, like, rockin’ out to it. So my brother tried to convince him it was a Christian album,” Stacey said. “Hey, it’s called ‘Livin’ on a Prayer.’ My father wasn’t amused at all.”

But like he said, that family connection is what’s provided surprises and yet kept him steady all these years — his wife both breathed new life into an old song that had sat “Idol”-y by for years, and she also put him in touch with one of country music’s most famous families through a chance encounter in New York City.

“My wife had to go to the bathroom — she loves it when I tell this story — so we ran in somewhere and I realize we’re in the Ritz-Carlton,” Stacey laughed. “Then from behind me I heard, ‘Phil Stacey? Tim McGraw. Man, it took me 10 years in this business to be able to afford to stay at this place.’ I was like, ‘Yeah. We’re not staying here.’”

They spent the rest of the evening with McGraw and his wife, Faith Hill, forging a connection and a friendship.

If his label’s past successes with Idolators are any indication, he’ll be sticking around the music business for a long time. The label also reps Season 2 contender Josh Gracin, whose first two albums went to No. 2 and No. 4 on the country charts, respectively; and Season 5 contestant Bucky Covington, whose 2007 album hit No. 1 on the country charts, much to Simon Cowell’s surprise.

And that’s as surprising as anything, Stacey said, country music has strong consumer brand loyalty, a growing fan base and little deviation from a set formula. That means a new musician struggles to get the attention of radio program managers, and even if they’re successful that may not translate into record sales. Lady Antebellum, for example, just made the top five and they’ve been on the charts for 40 weeks.

“We released the record when we were still just trying to get the song heard on the radio,” Stacey said, and that made him nervous about the sales figures the album would put up.

But the industry also doesn’t accept phonies, like the disastrous attempt a decade ago to market Garth Brooks as “Chris Gaines.” In that sense, Stacey’s lack of sparkling PR combined with the sound of his daughters playing in the background during telephone interviews have only added to his charm.

Phil Stacey
The Country Club
Friday, June 13
8 p.m.
$15 advance, $20 at the door
706-364-1862
augustacountry.com

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