March 16, 2018 09:05 PM

You could ask Scotty McCreery which event he’s more excited about, his new album or his upcoming wedding. But why make him choose — especially since his latest single off the album is actually about his wedding?

The song, “This Is It,” which McCreery co-wrote, tells the romantic story of his North Carolina mountaintop proposal to longtime girlfriend Gabi (pronounced gah-BEE) Dugal, and it paints a happy picture of the wedding day: “Now you’re walking down the aisle/And I can’t help but smile.”

The actual nuptials won’t be until sometime in June (McCreery is mum on the date), but the 24-year-old native North Carolinian is expecting reality to reflect the lyrics. After all, he wrote “This Is It” a full two weeks before the proposal — and that went exactly as he envisioned it, on “a trail through the trees to a cliff where Carolina meets the sky.”

Gabi Dugal and Scotty McCreery
Courtesy Essential Broadcast Media

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These days McCreery is proving he has a knack for making his career dreams come true, too: He’s now celebrating his first No. 1 single, “Five More Minutes,” and his long-awaited third album, Seasons Change, debuted on Friday. It’s his first album in almost five years, and they’ve been years of struggle after he blazed onto the scene, at age 17, as the Season 10 winner of American Idol.

The No. 1 single, McCreery tells PEOPLE, “was my biggest goal for my career in the last seven years. That’s what every artist wants. I mean, I’ve had albums that have topped the Billboard 200, but that was a lot of the heat from the [Idol] show and wasn’t just a reflection of my art and my craft and my songs.”

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More than any song he has previously recorded, McCreery says, “Five More Minutes” is “my song.” But that also holds true for the album’s other 10 cuts, every one also co-written by McCreery. It’s a point of enormous pride for someone who once described his Idol experience as being a “glorified karaoke singer.”

“That’s what it is, I mean, if you think about it,” he says. “But that’s what I’ve been trying to get away from. I was writing songs before Idol. … Now that I’ve gotten to Nashville, I’ve really tried to embrace it and write with everybody I can.”

Scotty McCreer
Jeff Ray for Triple Tigers Records / Sony Music Entertainment

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Songs on his previous albums were picked primarily on the basis of whether they were “radio-friendly,” McCreery recalls. But this time around, he was determined to create music  that “nobody else can sing.” The result is an album that is intensely personal.

Of course fans have already embraced “Five More Minutes,” inspired by the death of his beloved grandfather, and they’re now getting acquainted with “This Is It,” a tender, mid-tempo song that encapsulates all the hope and excitement of a marriage proposal. Other cuts that tell McCreery’s life story include “Boys From Back Home,” about the childhood friends he still calls “my best buddies”; the breezy “Barefootin’,” a tribute to his love for North Carolina’s beaches; and “Home in My Mind,” his wistful response to a life that has put him on the road for weeks at a time.

The title cut, “Seasons Change,” is a sunny, up-tempo song that, surprisingly, was written at perhaps McCreery’s lowest point, just after he was dropped from his previous label in 2016. That year, he says, was quickly consumed by legal wrangles that were needed to extricate him from other recording obligations and to regain ownership of his music, including “Five More Minutes.”

The title song, McCreery says, was his full-throated declaration that life was going to get better. Though “Seasons Change” opens with the sounds of a storm, he describes it as “an optimistic song.”

“I knew if we put our boots on the ground and got to work, we could come out of it,” he says, “and the seasons would change.”

As personal as the album is, McCreery has chosen to mostly conceal what became his trademark during his Idol days: his resonant baritone. No, he says, he didn’t set out to put his low notes on a shelf. It just worked out that way.

“Honestly, it’s not stuff I haven’t done before,” he says about singing closer to the top of his vocal range. “I just haven’t really recorded it before … I was a tenor in my high school chorus for the longest time. … and then when I started singing on TV and got to recording albums in Nashville, I just never used it. For this record, I was like, let’s stretch. Let’s have fun. Let’s try new things.”

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As he awaits the public’s response to the album that’s so close to his heart, McCreery knows the music has already won over the people who matter most. His North Carolina crew, he says, can’t get enough of “Boys From Back Home,” and he says “This Is It” has already become a smash hit for his fiancée.

She heard it for the first time just moments after the marriage proposal; McCreery played a recording of it once the couple was back in their vacation cabin surrounded by their families (whom McCreery had gathered to surprise Dugal).

Scotty McCreery and Gabi Dugal

“There were waterworks,” he confirms. “Hopefully,” he adds, “she hears it a lot more [on the radio] when she’s driving around.”

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