It was 2016, and Scotty McCreery wasn’t happy.
Five years after winning the coveted American Idol title over fellow country singer Lauren Alaina, the North Carolina native just couldn’t match the success of previous hits such as “See You Tonight” or “I Love You This Big.”
And frankly, he wasn’t sure what to do.
“If I’m being honest, things sucked,” the normally upbeat McCreery, 25, tells PEOPLE backstage before a recent show in Chicago. “2016 was a really rough year. I was questioning a lot of stuff. I was looking for advice from everybody. There was a light at the end of the tunnel but that light felt really far away. It was a long ass tunnel, that’s for sure.”
But then came an epiphany.
“I could either mope and pout or I could pick myself up by the bootstraps and keep marching on,” he recalls. “I chose the latter and I’m definitely better for it now.”
Because little did McCreery know what awaited him down that long tunnel. Little did he know that he would get his first No. 1 single “Five More Minutes” just a year later and little did he know that he would have a No. 1 album with Seasons Change and he sure the heck didn’t know that as 2018 comes to a close, he just might be on the cusp of another chart-topper with his current single “This Is It.”
But he did know one thing.
He knew he was going to marry Miss Gabi Dugal someday.
“2018 has been the greatest year of my life, especially because it’s the year I got to marry her,” McCreery raves of his love, who sits just feet away from him on a couch backstage. “She’s incredible and we make a great team, and to be able to go through life together is one of my biggest joys. She always sees the best in people so it rubs off on me when I’m having a down day. Just going home to her perks me up a little.”
As the two of them approach their first Christmas as a married couple, the McCreerys have been busy making brand new traditions together.
“One of the traditions Gabi wanted to start this year was for us to go to the mountains of North Carolina and find our own tree and cut it and all that. Let me just say that trees look a lot smaller on the side of a massive mountain,” McCreery admits with a smile.
“We got way too big of a tree so we had to cut it outside with our hedger and then get it inside. It was still too big, so I got our shears out and I was just going to town. Eventually we got it to fit in our little spot, but getting the tree from the truck into the house was an adventure.”
And yes, what’s a first Christmas without the perfect first gift?
“Gabi has been asking for a piano for like five years, so that’s what I’m getting for her,” he says. “We are getting a studio room together at home so it will go there.”
After a pre-Christmas trip to New York City with the McCreery side of the family, the couple look forward to spending the actual holiday with Gabi’s family in Louisiana.
“We will wake up on Christmas day in New Orleans,” says McCreery, who then plans to spend a rather quiet New Year’s Eve in his home state of North Carolina. “I have never done that before and I have never had Christmas away from home, but it will be fun. We will be eating gumbo for Christmas.”
And while the two recently celebrated their six-month anniversary as husband and wife, there are still things McCreery is trying to get used to, such as wearing his wedding ring.
“I’m just always messing with it,” McCreery says with a laugh. “I end up dropping it a lot. The other day I dropped it inside the cushion of the bus and the driver had to get the screwdriver to undo the bus seats. Gabi’s Christmas present to me might be another ring because I am going to lose this one eventually, but hopefully not.”
Of course, the New Year also comes with its share of changes for the couple, as Gabi will go from working as a nurse in a pediatric cardiac intensive care unit to working primarily in a pediatric bone marrow unit. The new year will also bring McCreery back into the studio as he begins to set his sights on new music.
“We still have some songs on this record that I think are potential singles,” McCreery says. “I always like to be in the creative mindset and writing is probably my favorite thing to do so I’m really excited about getting back at it in January.”
And while the two have considered a full-time move to Nashville, McCreery says that the time is just not right quite yet.
“It’s always kind of been on our minds, but we have our apartment [in Nashville] and next year when I start getting back into the studio, I’ll be there more. Right now home is home and home is in North Carolina.”
And home will feel really good to McCreery until he finds his way back out on the road as he continues forth on his Seasons Change Tour come Jan. 17.
“Christmas time has always been my favorite time of the year,” he says. “And this year, I’m just so happy because we are married and we have our own house. It feels great and it feels warm and it feels like it should feel when it’s your first Christmas.”