Blake Shelton has a lot of fans, but he also feels fortunate to have a few close friends. The 42-year-old says that the older he gets, the more he appreciates the people in his inner circle.
"I find that as time goes by, my definition of a hero changes. My heroes have started to become my good friends," Shelton tells PEOPLE. "You start to find out, the older you get — I guess we all do — that a really good friend is a pretty rare thing to have in your life. That person. I've gotta say that the handful of really close friends that I have, those are my heroes. They're the ones that will just drop everything to be there for you if they need to be. I hold them high."
Shelton doesn't have to think long to know who is musical hero is – someone who isn't quite a household name, but by Shelton's estimation should be.
"I always loved Earl Thomas Conley, but it wasn't until I was about 18 that I really started to appreciate what a great singer he was," Shelton says. "He has a song called 'What I'd Say' that really takes me back. I'd listen to that thing a million times, just by myself in my studio apartment in Nashville, just trying to sing that. I wanted to sing like him, because I knew if I could, I maybe could make it one day."
The Oklahoma native famously referenced Conley's name in his acceptance speech at the 2014 CMA Awards for Male Vocalist of the Year.
"I noticed Earl Thomas Conley had never won that award. I don't know, it struck me," Shelton recalls. "I just assumed that surely he must have, because he's my favorite he has to be the winner right? That night I happened to win Male Vocalist of the Year, and so I mentioned his name on stage and dedicated the award to him. He's just an incredible vocalist and, I feel like, underrated."
Conley, who co-wrote Shelton's second single, "All Over Me," texted Shelton after the show to express his gratitude for the public acclaim.
"He said it had been a lot of years since he had heard his name mentioned from that stage," Shelton recounts.
Shelton won the CMA Award for Male Vocalist of the Year five years in a row, from 2010 to 2014, before losing to Chris Stapleton the last two years. Nominees for the 2018 CMA Awards will be announced on Tuesday, August 28.
Shelton will return to coach Season 15 of The Voice this year, along with Adam Levine, Kelly Clarkson and Jennifer Hudson.
Photo Credit: Getty images/Jason Kempin