The show is returning to Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall on Sept. 13, plus more on the musician's upcoming record

By Sarah Michaud
August 03, 2015 08:30 AM
Credit: Rick Diamond/Getty

There he is – the first celebrity judge of the 2016 Miss America competition.

Brett Eldredge is one of seven judges who will choose which of 52 women representing their home states and territories will bring home the crown, PEOPLE confirms exclusively.

Celebrating its 95th year, the women will compete for the title (and scholarship) on Sept. 13 at Atlantic City’s Boardwalk Hall, airing live on ABC.

“I get to judge Miss America! Are you kidding me?!” the country star – who will release his sophomore album, Illinois, two days before the pageant – said in a statement. “Talk about a dream come true. I can’t wait to be a part of this.”

PEOPLE caught up with Eldredge, 29, during a break in his California tour dates to talk Miss America, his new record, and life on the road.

Tell us why you agreed to judge.
It’s a boy’s dream! These women represent America – they display their talents, their beauty and their minds. And as a judge I get to be a part of that.

What will you be looking for in the contestants?
I love a woman that has it together. She knows what she wants for her career and her life and has goals. It’s beyond beauty – it’s that they have it together and they know what they want. I’ll be basing a lot of my decisions on that.

Many guys would say swimsuit is their favorite category what about you? Are you going to be watching the talent portion extra closely given your own musical background?
Swimsuit is obviously a great category but the talent part says a lot about a person. Everybody in the whole world has a certain talent. I grew up being in talent shows and I always loved them, so I think that will be my favorite part – seeing what each woman brings to the table.

So, does Miss Illinois automatically get a vote from you? Home state pride
I do have a lot of home state pride! My album is called Illinois so I do love where I come from, but people will be watching me, thinking, “Oh, he just likes that girl because she’s from Illinois.” Well if she’s awesome, if she’s talented, if she’s bright, if she’s got it together, then I’ll give her my vote. I want to be the best judge possible – if she’s great then maybe I’ll help send her to the top, but everybody’s fair game here!

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We’re so excited for your new record – loving the songs we’ve listened to so far. What kind of response have you been getting to the songs people have heard and that you’re playing on the road?
I’m so pumped to get it out there. It’s about to come out. Having the success I’ve had with my first album, with three number one songs, it’s a lot of pressure to get the second album out there and deliver – deliver even better than Bring You Back. And I really feel that we’ve done that – this is the best I’ve ever felt in the studio and in recording songs that I’ve written. I just can’t wait for people to hear the whole thing.

I’ve been playing a lot of the songs live at the shows and they’ve been getting amazing reactions. People have been downloading the ones I’ve released early online and they’ve been rising up the iTunes charts. And just to see people react like that – that’s an amazing feeling and it’s giving me hope and the belief that I’ll be able to do this for many years to come, as long as my fans keep showing up like they are. I feel very fortunate.

How do you stay sane during these long stretches on the road? It must be important to get off the bus.
Trying to stay sane on the road is pretty hard. I’m crazy as it is, in some ways. I like to go on a lot of adventures. Right now I’m sitting in a parking lot at a venue – I’m going to play for 26,000 people tonight, but right now I’m sitting here twiddling my thumbs. I get the opportunity to see so many different places I don’t want to just go sit in a parking lot the whole time – I gotta go see the world. The music takes me to a lot of awesome places and I want to take full advantage of that.

Can you tell us a little about what we can expect from your upcoming fall tour with Thomas Rhett? Lots of trouble, we assume?
Suits & Boots! I’m so excited to do this tour because he has been a good buddy of mine for a long time and we both have had our careers rise together in a special way. It’s great to make music with friends that you love, and it’s really cool to have a co-headlining tour – we’re going to switch it off every night, just randomly. One of us opens, one of us closes, it doesn’t matter. We’re just going to have fun with it – it’s going to be a big party. It’s something new and different.

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