Though the kids competing are the nominal draw, Shelton and Levine's playful rapport is the real star of the show – Simon and Paula, but actually funny. They're a great odd couple: the tattooed rock star with his collection of Harleys and the drawling country singer with his beat-up Chevy pickup. "But here's the difference," Shelton says. "I can change a flat."
Shelton grew up in the small town of Ada, in south central Oklahoma. His dad, Dick, ran a used car lot. His mom, Dorothy, owned a beauty shop. Shelton liked to hang out when he was young, teasing and flirting with the customers. "That's where I learned to bullshit with girls," he says – although his sister, Endy, remembers things a little differently. "He didn't look quite like he does now," she laughs. "He was a little chubbier, he had a mullet going on, glasses. He didn't have too much success."
From almost the time he could walk, Shelton loved being outdoors, catching bugs, digging under rocks. The Sheltons lived on five acres, with a creek running through the back, where Shelton used to catch turtles and crawdads. He brought home so many frogs that his mom started calling him Toad. (Sometimes she still does.) "We had to drag him into the house at night," she recalls. "He loved all animals: grasshoppers, locusts, lizards, snakes, worms. One time I had a flyswatter and I killed a fly, and he cried." In junior high, Shelton had two pet raccoons. His mom thought he'd grow up to be a veterinarian or a forest ranger.
Shelton was the baby of the family, and he loved being the center of attention. He played a lot of pranks – like propping a roadkill deer on the driver's side of his buddy's pickup – and was repeatedly voted class clown. He never played sports ("I'm too big of a puss, man") and never got into trouble ("I was too afraid"). At school, he used to waltz into shop class singing Christmas carols at the top of his lungs, even in May. When he was 15, he got invited to perform at a weekly revue at a theater in downtown Ada, where he learned how to work a stage and to sell a joke. "Being in front of an audience never fazed him," his sister says. "The way he is on camera now is exactly the way he was when he was 10 years old."
For a while, Shelton figured he'd go into construction after graduation – "I was always fascinated with backhoes and bulldozers and shit like that" – but by the time he hit 17, there wasn't even a Plan B. "I was just focused on being a country singer." Two weeks after his high school graduation, Shelton piled his possessions into the back of a pickup and moved to Nashville. "It was a cold shock," he recalls. "It was the biggest city I'd ever been to." He got a $300 apartment and a job painting signs; some family friends had to cosign for his gas and electric hookups, because he was too young. Eventually he started getting work singing on demo tapes for other songwriters, which made him enough money to pay rent and buy beer, which was all he needed. Five years later, in 1998, he finally got a record deal of his own. His first single, the tearjerker "Austin," went to number one on the country charts for five weeks straight. "That song came out, and I was like, 'Fuck – this is easy!' " Shelton says, laughing. "And then the next single came out, and it died a horrible death."
Shelton plugged away for the next several years, never the biggest star but always working, a Nashville journeyman with a string of lighthearted hits like "Some Beach" (say it with a drawl) and "The More I Drink" (next line: "...the more I drink"). "I've only had one platinum album, and it's Red River Blue," he says – the first released after 'Voice' mania took off. "I've always had just enough success to buy me some more tour dates and another record. I was always this close to going to the next level, and I owe it to the show for sure."
When the producers of 'The Voice' first approached Shelton's agent, after seeing him do some funny guest appearances on another reality competition and some awards shows, Shelton turned them down flat. He only relented when he heard Christina Aguilera had signed on. "I was like, 'Fuck, who am I to be the holdout?'" he says. "I'm the country guy nobody's ever heard of." He credits his breakout success to the fact that you don't usually see good old boys like him in network TV's New York- and L.A.-centric worlds. "Sometimes I think they don't know who all of us are in the middle," he says. "If there's one thing special about me, it's that I seem familiar. People feel like I live next door."
Shelton represents a kind of modernized throwback – an open-minded country dude who takes you quail hunting and then comes home and cooks the quail with biscuits and gravy. "Not many men in this world know how to make gravy," says Jayson "Buck" Gray, who's been friends with Shelton since he was 10, when they would go bass fishing at a pond near Shelton's house. Later, Shelton was a groomsman in Gray's wedding; Gray still laughs about how Shelton drove overnight from Wisconsin to Oklahoma after a show, just in time to make the wedding, jumping out of his truck to ask, "Hey man, you got some black socks?" He's one of the last country musicians who "really bought into the idea of the cowboy hat," Gray adds. "He knows when to wear a felt hat and when to wear a straw one."
A few weeks after he left home and moved to Nashville, Shelton got a letter in the mail from his dad. "It was like five pages thick," he recalls. "The first couple lines said, 'Hey, I didn't get a chance to tell you some things that I wanted to tell you about entering the world,' and as soon as I read that, I folded it back up." He had a great relationship with his dad, but he was a headstrong teenager and wanted to make it on his own. "I didn't want to hear it," he says. "I was 17. I didn't want to be told what to do."
Shelton tossed the letter aside and forgot about it, and eventually lost it. But as he got older, he thought about it a lot, and how he'd do anything to be able to read it. Then last year, his father died, after a long battle with lung disease. "It got to the point where he was choking to death," Shelton says. "One day the doctor came in, and Dad said, 'Can you make me go to sleep and not wake up?' So they took him off the ventilator and gave him some morphine for pain. They said it could be a couple of days. But he went to sleep and died in like three or four hours."
A few days later, Shelton was going through some of his things when he found a relic from his Nashville days. "It was one of those cans you get at Christmas with four different types of popcorn. And if I did one thing right when I was 17, it was saving that letter inside that can." Shelton sat down to read the letter for the first time. A lot of it was practical, nuts-and-bolts stuff: how to save money, how credit cards work. "But there was also a lot of shit about how to treat people," he says, "how to get respect, how to look people in the eye, and how to shake their hand – basically, how to be a man in the world." As Shelton read the letter, full of things his dad never would have said in person, he was floored. "It was like I was having a conversation with him I never had."
Shelton says nothing made his dad happier than feeling like he was helping somebody out. "It just gave him a burst of energy," he says. Near the end, when the pain was getting to be too much to take, he and Lambert had gone to visit him at the hospital. "I remember him laying there in the bed, and he really couldn't even talk," Shelton says. "And Miranda was standing there, and he was trying to get her attention – and I really don't even know how he said it. But he got her down there, and he whispered: 'Don't forget to renew your tags.' "