You could tell what kind of year Blaine Larsen was having on the night of his 20th birthday. He was singing before 10,000 fans in the Patriot Center in Fairfax, Virginia, when a friend wearing a T-shirt and baseball cap and carrying a birthday cake, candles ablaze, walked to where he was standing center-stage. The friend--Blaine's touring partner Gretchen Wilson--got to the microphone and led the crowd in a rousing and heartfelt rendition of "Happy Birthday," then walked back offstage to continue preparing for her own portion of the show.
"I never in a million years expected her to do something like that," laughs the lanky young singer from Buckley, Washington. "For the headliner to come out before their show is just unheard of, so it was just one of the coolest things that's happened to me so far. And the cake was good, too!"
Good things have been happening with regularity to Blaine, who has ridden a pair of heartfelt hits to a position as one of the most respected young talents on the country scene. He established himself as a voice and presence to be reckoned with by releasing the poignant "How Do You Get That Lonely," a searing look at teen suicide that has brought countless thank-you's from people comforted or strengthened by the song, and "The Best Man," a look at the true meaning of manhood and fatherhood co-written by Blaine about the man who married his mother and raised him as his own. Both were from his breakthrough debut CD, Off To Join The World.
He appeared in scores of media outlets, including ABC'S Good Morning America and USA Weekend. He has twice been selected as one of AOL's "21 Under 21," the only country artist among a Who's Who of the music world that includes Hilary Duff and Panic! At the Disco. He toured with Kenny Chesney, then became part of the Redneck Revolution Tour with Wilson and Van Zant. As if that weren't enough, he also earned a pilot's license, married his longtime girlfriend Sammie and began building a house outside Nashville.
Now, at an age when most people are perusing career possibilities, Blaine is releasing his second album, Rockin' You Tonight. Kicked off by the fast-rising single "I Don't Know What She Said," a fun and energetic look at romance and language barriers in Old Mexico, the new project is a giant step forward for Blaine. His first record was essentially "some songs I liked," cut in a tiny studio for an astoundingly inexpensive $8,000, with an eye to selling the result at gigs in the Seattle area and maybe picking up a little incidental airplay. Though he still looks at Off to Join the World as "magic," it was fate rather than long-range planning that turned it into a career-launching record deal and made him one of the best-selling new artists of 2005.
The follow-up, says Blaine, “The really cool thing about the spot I'm in is that this feels like my first record, but it's not—people already have my first album, so I've got a real leg up.”
Rockin' You Tonight fulfills all the promise of Off To Join The World, with songs that range from the tender "I'm In Love With A Married Woman" and the reflective "At The Gate" through the attitude of "No Woman" and the sheer fun of the title cut and "Spoken Like A Man" to the depth of the challenging call-to-action "Someone Is Me."
Another highlight is "Lips Of A Bottle," a duet with Wilson he wrote with his high school math teacher, David Bleam. He had thought of Wilson as the ideal duet partner for the song, and was thrilled when she agreed to sing it with him. "It's probably my favorite cut on the record," he says. "It's a really really special song to me."
Overall, the game plan for "Rockin' You Tonight" was simple. "I just love great songs, things that move me," he says, "and they could be about anything, so there's a wide variety of subjects. The music should make me feel something, make you want to cry or get up and dance. Thematically, we explored more adult subjects, and that might be the big thing people notice. I was 16 when I did some of the songs on the last album, and a lot has happened since then."
Blaine co-wrote four of the album's 12 songs, but makes it clear that there is nothing less than heartfelt self-expression throughout. "Every song on the record is part of me," he says. "We went through thousands of songs and it was about finding those that sounded like they were tailor-made for me."
Blaine's desire for authenticity goes back to his childhood appreciation for idols like George Strait and Merle Haggard, artists he heard through the man who would become his stepfather when Blaine was 12--his parents had divorced when he was 5. In fact, Blaine's first public appearance was a performance of the Tom T. Hall-penned Alan Jackson hit "Little Bitty" at that wedding, at which he was also best man. At 13, he bought a guitar, and by his freshman year in high school he was singing at assemblies. Geometry teacher Bleam spotted his talent, gave him some lessons and helped him write his first song.
Blaine still didn't picture music as a career--his dream was to be a pilot--but each step forward helped pull him toward the next one. He took part in weekly jam sessions at a club about 45 minutes from his home in Blaine, and then began playing parties and weddings. He opened for John Conlee when he was 15, and took the opportunity to go to Nashville to record some demos, and then an independent project. One of those songs, "In My High School," got some Seattle airplay and caught the ear of a SONY BMG employee, who alerted label chairman Joe Galante and set in motion Blaine's major-label deal.
Some artists wait a career for a song as meaningful as "Lonely," and Blaine had it out of the box. He followed it up with "The Best Man," which was inspired by Woody and which helped establish him as a writer and artist of depth and relevance .He has since played several times at the Grand Ole Opry, and hit the road with Rascal Flatts before his stints with Chesney and Wilson.
His second album opens the door for all sorts of possibilities, and both his personal and professional lives have reached new levels. "I've grown a lot in the past few years," he says. "Most people my age don't have a job like this, and I'm grateful for the chance to take on the challenge and the responsibility."
At this point, his childhood dream of a career flying has become a much-needed source of recreation, one he says ties in perfectly with the rest of his busy life.
"Flying is perfect for me because it's such a departure from what I do daily. When you're flying, you've got to be focused on what you're doing. I like it because it's something you can take as far as you want to. It's kind of like music--the harder you work at it, the more you can do. That's important to me, because I love learning and I love accomplishing things."
The challenges keep coming for the young man from Washington state, but the possibilities--well, at this point, like the skies he soars into, they're limitless.