Blake Shelton is cruising down Sunset Boulevard in the passenger seat of a silver Escalade, squinting in the California sun, when he realizes that he's lost. "Where exactly in L.A. are we right now?" he asks his tour manager, Kevin Canady, sitting in the driver's seat.
"Hollywood," Canady says. "The house is up that way" – he points to the Hills – "and there's Chick-fil-A right there."
"Oh, okay," says Shelton, regaining his bearings. "We had lunch there the other day."
Not every big-time TV star navigates Hollywood using chicken-sandwich franchises as landmarks. But Shelton is not your everyday big-time TV star. "I like California," he says, "but I'm dyed-in-the-wool Oklahoma. I see a deer in L.A., and everybody's standing around it taking pictures. Back home, that's the enemy!"
Shelton has been in L.A. since 2010, when he was cast on 'The Voice' – NBC's smash-hit reality singing show, which knocked off 'American Idol' and almost single-handedly changed the network's fortunes – and subsequently went from being a modestly popular country singer to the breakout star on the biggest show of the year. Nowadays, Shelton spends about six months of the year here – along with his wife, Miranda Lambert, when she's not on tour – but he still couldn't get from the 101 to the 405. "I've driven in L.A. probably three times," he says. "I'm a slug in L.A. I literally leave the show, go to the house, and shut the gate. The only people's houses that I've been to in L.A. are ['Voice' star] Adam Levine's, ['Voice' star] Christina Aguilera's, ['Voice' executive producer] Mark Burnett's, and Michael Bublé's."
He doesn't like sushi and doesn't get yoga, but Shelton has made a few concessions to California living – like the cold-pressed green juice he drinks once a day, mostly so he can make jokes about his bowel movements. But he refuses to buy a house here for the same reason he won't get a medical-dispensary card, even though he's not opposed to the occasional pot cookie or brownie. "That would mean I'd have to be a resident," he says. "And I can't bring myself to do that. There's something about owning a house here that makes it official. My buddy Cinco doesn't even call me Blake anymore," he adds ruefully. "He calls me 'Big City.' " And yes, Shelton is totally the kind of guy who has a buddy named Cinco.
Out on the sidewalk, a girl with bright pink hair is waiting for a bus in cut-off short-shorts. Shelton stares at her. "Look how skinny that girl's legs are," he says. "I wonder if that's her natural color."
Right now Shelton is on his way to lunch at his favorite Mexican place before reporting to the set of 'The Voice.' The restaurant is on Sunset, right across from Guitar Center, and it's called El Compadre – "Home of the Flaming Margarita." Canady pulls the truck into an alley, and Shelton climbs out, a lanky 6-foot-5 in faded Wranglers and alligator-skin boots, with slightly graying hair that he refuses to dye. Shelton is one of those fortunate souls who looks better at 37 than he did at 26, the age when he came roaring out of Nashville as a cowboy-hatted pretty boy with blue eyes, a baby face, and long brown curls. He's grown into himself and now looks a little like Leonardo DiCaprio's redneck cousin. On his left forearm there's a tattoo that Shelton designed himself, one night when he was in no condition to be designing tattoos – they were supposed to be deer tracks, but everyone kept mistaking them for ladybugs, so he added some barbed wire to make it more manly.
Inside, Shelton orders huevos rancheros and a margarita on the rocks, which, as advertised, is delivered en fuego. ("Well, it is L.A. . . .," Shelton says, with a shit-eating grin.) But this is also a working lunch: Two days earlier, an F5 tornado tore through Moore, Oklahoma, flattening the neighborhood where his sister used to live. "I spent three Christmases there," he says. "That elementary school" – the one where seven children were killed – "is the one my niece would have been at." As soon as he heard, he started organizing a benefit for the next week.
Shelton's big heart is one of the reasons viewers have fallen in love with him on 'The Voice.' In the first season, when one of the kids he was mentoring reached the finals, and the dress she wanted exceeded the wardrobe budget, Shelton paid for it himself. "Yeah, I spoil them pretty bad," he says. "But, shit, man, this business is hard. And I've been real lucky." America also loves Shelton for how much of a shit he doesn't give. This bow-hunting, tractor-driving, straight shooter who spikes his on-camera Starbucks cup with a splash of vodka and isn't afraid to admit that his wife is tougher than he is, has charmed his way into the nation's living rooms like no male country star in recent memory. On a program with no shortage of outsize characters, Shelton's laid-back antics steal the show, like a guy who wandered onto the set after a few drinks at happy hour and decided to stick around a while. "The guy is just pure positive energy," says Levine. "He has this kind of punk-rock mentality, where he's not afraid to speak his mind, not afraid to say the wrong thing. It's a huge part of his success: What you get is different than what you're expecting."
Back in the car on the way to the studio in Burbank, he hops on the phone with the benefit's producer to start nailing down the lineup. "I don't want it to be, like, depressing," he says. "More triumphant – something heartwarming." He also wants to keep it all Oklahoma country artists if they can: "Carrie [Underwood] said she wants to do it," Shelton says. "And I sent you an email – we need to get Garth." The producer says they're also talking to Toby Keith, but he's potentially doing a benefit of his own. "Tell Toby I'll do his concert if he'll do mine," Shelton says. Then he mentions that Usher might be interested, too, although he's neither Oklahoman nor a country artist. "I'm not that smart," Shelton says, "but I'm smart enough to know that if Usher wants to help you, you let him."
A few blocks from Hollywood High, the Escalade passes a big billboard for 'La Voz Kids,' a Spanish-language children's version of 'The Voice' that airs on Telemundo. One of the stars, a Mexican singer with a beard and a cowboy hat named Roberto Tapia, seems to bear a striking resemblance to his gringo counterpart. "He looks a lot like you!" Canady says. "He might be a little thinner, though." In the passenger seat, Shelton cracks up. Then the light up ahead turns red, Canady slows to a stop, and a Starline Tours van pulls up alongside the SUV, with a dozen camera-toting tourists in the back. "Aw, shit," Shelton says, and slinks down into his seat.