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Jolly Rancher 

Country singer Blake Shelton is laughing in his beer.

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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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