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Jolly Rancher

Country singer Blake Shelton is laughing in his beer.


Blake Shelton isn't quite sure why he's so happy these days. It could have something to do with his marriage of a year and a half. Or with the fact that he not only beat the sophomore slump with his third album, Blake Shelton's Barn & Grill; he also scored a third No. 1 country single. For whatever reason, sometime between his second CD, 2003's The Dreamer, and last year's Barn & Grill, Shelton lightened up.

"I guess I've learned a lot about myself and my situation," he says. "The older I get and the more experienced I am, the more I realize how lucky I am to be doing this."

We're talking about a guy who made grown men cry -- with "The Baby," about a prodigal son returning home for his mom's funeral -- suddenly honking off with glee about "Some Beach" as he drives along the interstate. (In the song, Shelton sings about visiting Margaritaville after confrontations with a cell-phone-wielding driver, a cigar-chomping fat cat, and a drill-driving dentist.) "I've always been a fun guy," he maintains. "But I've just now gotten to that point on my records." (Shelton opens for Rascal Flatts at Blossom Music Center on Sunday.)

Barn & Grill is also loaded with songs soaked in alcohol ("The Bartender," "I Drink"). But it's not the usual I-lost-my-job-and-my-woman-today tunes here. Shelton's characters imbibe because they're happy. And because, well, they're in a bar. "I wanted an album that would sound cool playing on a jukebox," he says. "So we made an album centered around people sitting in a bar, telling stories."

The 28-year-old Oklahoma native started telling his stories in 2001, when his debut single, "Austin" (another tearjerker, this one about a failed romance played out over an answering machine), hit No. 1. From the start, Shelton's long, curly hair pouring out of an always-present cowboy hat defined his image. Shelton says this was never a plan. "To be honest with you, I never put much thought into it," he says. "It's never been about an image. At the end of the day, I just want to be known for some great songs."

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