By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tenn (Reuters) - Acting as a celebrity coach on NBC's hit talent show "The Voice" reminds Blake Shelton of his own rise from star-struck Oklahoma teenager to country music star.
Shelton came to Nashville at age 17, idolizing Travis Tritt and Paul Overstreet and imagining Nashville's famed Music Row as an impregnable fortress of towering skyscrapers.
"I figured out what makes this industry work, what makes the world turn here in Nashville, and it's record sales. It's one thing to hear yourself on radio, it's another for people to go buy your music," the 35-year-old Shelton told Reuters
New York Times' music critic Jon Caramanica recently wrote of Shelton, "Apart from perhaps Taylor Swift, he's becoming the most important and visible ambassador from Nashville to the American mainstream."
Told this, Shelton offered a quick "aw-shucks" reply. But he then gave a considered view of his career path since his 2001 single "Austin" hit No. 1 through this year's platinum-selling "Honey Bee" and five recent award nominations from the Country Music Association -- including his first nod for the top prize, entertainer of the year.
"You don't see a lot of country artists end up in pop culture, but somehow Miranda and I are there for a minute," said Shelton, referring to the tide of publicity surrounding his May wedding to fellow country star Miranda Lambert.
"When 'The Voice' comes and goes, and Miranda and I being married are not interesting to talk about anymore, country music will still be important to me. It's the reason I moved to Nashville," he said.
TV singing contest "The Voice" debuted earlier this year on NBC, and became a hit show. Shelton, a judge, was perhaps less well-known by mainstream audiences than some of his pop star counterparts such as Christina Aguilera, but over the season he endeared himself to viewers and became the program's breakout star. "The Voice" returns to TV on February 5.
TRAPPINGS OF FAME
Shelton and Lambert will briefly escape fame's trappings with a week-long hunting trip to Colorado before he begins taping the new season of "The Voice" and lays plans for his first headline tour next year.
"I don't think it will even soak in on me until next week," Shelton said of the five CMA award nominations, which were announced last week. The awards show airs on November 9.
"I'll be sitting there one morning and go 'holy crap, that's a big deal.' There's so much going on right now (it's) hard to take it all in."
Shelton may have another hit soon with the release of "Footloose," the theme song originally recorded by Kenny Loggins for the 1984 movie of the same name which has been remade and debuts in theaters on October 14.
"When they approached me about it, they asked me about doing another song, but I told them I wanted to do 'Footloose' or I wasn't going to be part of the soundtrack," he said.
Shelton said people either love or hate the idea of him re-recording the former hit, but he was thrilled to learn Loggins liked his version.
"It is in THE scene of the movie, and I didn't want to monkey around with it. I wanted to pay homage to Kenny's version, and just make it sound new again. With me singing, it is definitely more country sounding," Shelton said.
In musing about the contestants he has coached on "The Voice," Shelton said the eagerness and fire displayed by Dia Frampton and Xenia reinvigorated him.
"When you're tired, and people are pulling you, you forget how fortunate you are to do what I do," he said.
Shelton also remarked on the musical relationship that blossomed with concert tour mate Jerrod Niemann, and on the notice the two received for their teasing stage antics.
"He is not afraid to make an ass of himself," Shelton said of Niemann. "It's fun when you can find somebody you can talk trash to. I think fans love it and if they take it seriously then they need to go to listen to jazz. We don't take ourselves seriously.
"I'm glad he's the guy he is. There's not many weirdos like me out there."
(Editing by Andrew Stern and Bob Tourtellotte)