It’s no secret that country music has never encompassed more varied musical influences than can be found on today’s country airwaves. So what’s a young traditionalist to do in format that leans more toward hip-hop than fiddle and steel guitars? For Scotty McCreery, the answer is to “Scottify.”

“This song kind of encompasses the goal of my music which is throwing the traditional parts in there that I love, but also keeping it edgy and modern,” McCreery told Billboard recently after performing his new single “Southern Belle” on the Grand Ole Opry. “Hearing the demo, I didn’t know if we could quite do that with this song. The demo is pretty wild, but [producer] Frank [Rogers] was with me when I heard it and he said, ‘Yeah, we could Scottify that!’”

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“Southern Belle” is the first single from McCreery’s still-untitled third studio album, due in early 2016. “Honestly, as far as singles go, it’s probably the best response that I’ve gotten out of anything we’ve put out yet,” says McCreery, a native of Garner, N.C., who won the tenth season of American Idol. “Folks are looking to see us grow and when you start out as young as I did, hopefully you can only go one way and that’s up.  We’ve been working hard and this is what we’ve come up with. I don’t normally jam to myself in the car, but if I hear it on the radio, I still turn it up.”

When McCreery’s debut album, Clear As Day, bowed in 2011, he made history becoming the first country act to debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 with their first studio album, as well as the youngest male artist to hit the summit with his debut release. Though his albums have fared well on the charts, he’s yet to notch a No. 1 single.

“We’ve had top 10 success, but I’m itching for that No. 1,” he confesses. “Hopefully ‘Southern Belle’ will be that song, and we’ve got other songs behind it that can also fill that slot for No. 1, so we’ll see. For 21, this is where I’m at and what I am.”

McCreery turns 22 on Oct. 9 and has big plans with his friends. “I’m taking my bus. It’s meeting me in Raleigh, and I’m getting all my buddies, eight of us and we’re going to drive to Virginia and go see North Carolina State play Virginia Tech in football,” he says. “And we’re gonna play a little golf along the way, so we’ll have a little bro kind of day.”

McCreery has been opening for Rascal Flatts on the Riot Tour and is wrapping up that trek the first week of October. “They are great guys with a great crew,” he says. “We’ve been treated first class the whole time and we’ve had a blast. It’s been great exposure for a guy like me who’s still trying to reach those fans. We got get 40 minutes a night to go out there and try to make them Scotty fans when they leave the show that night. I’ve just loved the opportunity and really appreciated it. It’s been a great summer to remember.”

On McCreery’s list of career highlights, American Idol, of course, holds a treasured spot. “It’s bittersweet for me,” he says of the show ending. “It’s cool to have its farewell season and I’ll be a part of it in different ways, especially the finale.

“That show has brought a lot to pop culture,” he continues. “It was a pretty dominant factor in pop culture for the last 15 years. It produced artists like myself, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson, Kellie Pickler. In country music alone, Idol really helped out in that aspect and produced some stars.  I’m just glad to be a part of what the show was about for the past 15 years. It’ll be sad to see it go. It definitely was a huge part of my life. It was a big platform for me, and I’m really grateful and thankful for it. It will be missed. It’s pretty cool to be a part of it.”

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McCreery is hard at work on his next album: He’s already cut 10 songs and has co-written five. “There is a song called ‘Five More Minutes,’ which is a favorite song,” he says. “I wrote it with Frank Rogers and Monty Criswell. It goes through life [from] that kid that mom’s yelling at for supper but he wants to play for five more minutes to that kid who has a girlfriend and is scared to kiss her and just wants five more minutes. It goes through life all the way ‘til the end of life and just wishing you had five more minutes to do this or that or say this or that.”

Another of McCreery’s favorite tracks that has earned a spot on the new album is titled “In Between.” “Me, Frank, Jonathan Singleton, and Jessi Alexander wrote that song and it was a great time,” he says. “That to me is an anthem for who I am. I’m not this holier than thou guy, but I’m not this party guy either. I’m kind of stuck somewhere in between, which I think a lot of folks out there in the world are. They don’t identify with either of the far right or far left, just kind of right there in between and living life the best they can. That’s what that song says and I’m really pumped about it.” 

And the singer feels this album will give fans a closer look at who he really is. “I definitely feel like I’ve grown and I definitely feel more confident,” he says. “I’ve still got stuff to learn. You’re always learning in life, and at 21 that’s no exception. I’ve got a long ways to go. I feel like the stuff we’ve written has really been a good example of what I’m doing, who I am, what I’m about, and I’m writing with Nashville’s best. I’m lucky to be able to say that.”