NASHVILLE — As recently as 1987 southern virginia-born country crooner ricky van shelton was just another starry-eyed hopeful, haunting the nashville clubs by night and passing out three-for-$1.99 demo tapes of his original songs to anybody who would take them.
"I always used the cheap tapes," says Mr. Shelton with a laugh. "I couldn't afford Scotch or any of the more expensive brands," adds the latter-day country heartthrob, who has racked up a half-dozen No. 1 country singles and 2 million selling LPs in a little over three years and who appears tomorrow at the Baltimore Arena with Randy Travis and Shenandoah. Today, Mr. Shelton, with his down-home, dough-faced, country good looks, his robust physique and his penchant for white cowboy hats and matching white muscle shirts, has become one of country music's resident hunks and contemporary sex symbols.
Female admirers flock by the thousands to pay him homage each year at Nashville's annual Fan Fair in June and at other such ritualistic star-worshiping ceremonies. On the road (where he occasionally makes his stage entrance on a gleaming late-model Harley), he has occasionally incited mini-riots. And his music videos are the stuff of which lonely women's fantasies are made.
While Mr. Shelton says he's not surprised by his sudden success a recording artist ("I never wondered whether or not it would happen. That just ain't the way my mind works," he insists), he does concede that the "sex symbol thing" did catch him a little off guard.
"It spooks me sometimes when people at places like Fan Fair start tearing at my clothes and things," he says in his lilting South Virginia patois during a recent interview in the Nashville office of his record label CBS.
"I even had one lady once try to pull my wedding ring right off my finger. I'll never forget one night a couple of years ago I was playing in this club that didn't have much security. I was sitting at this table signing autographs and these people started rushing the line and pushing up against the table where I was sitting, and they pressed me right against the wall. There was this pregnant woman, and her stomach was being crushed against the table, and I just thought, 'Oh God!' A bunch of people pushed the crowd back and got the girl out. Then I split. I got outa there.
"Myself. I don't think about image or things like that," he says.
The actual creative furrow that Van Shelton has plowed appears to be somewhat narrower and perhaps a bit less impressive than the overwhelming cult of personality that's grown around him. He's become a one-man cottage industry for resurrecting long-forgotten country and honky-tonk hits of the '50s and '60s. Though he's had little luck with his original songs, he has gotten extensive mileage out of reviving country oldies.
His LPs -- "Loving Proof," "Wild Eyed Dreams" and "RSV III" -- have been heavily laden with his convincing renditions of hits and near misses of yesteryear by an earlier generation of country artists such as Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, Roger Miller and the Wilburn Brothers.
Mr. Shelton recently dusted off the old 1962 Ned Miller hit, "From a Jack to a Queen," and took it for a second ride to the top of the charts.
"People ask me all the time whether I worry about topping the last album," complains the singer, who is not inclined to put any deep philosophical significance or complex musical spin on his fans. "No, I ain't worried. My producer Steve Buckingham and I just choose the songs we like the best,and we think radio will like. And that's all we can do."
Ricky Van Shelton
Where: Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St.
When: Oct. 20 at 7:30 p.m.