He made it all the way to the Top 7 on 'American Idol' before Phil Stacey revealed that he is a country singer. The unassuming Naval officer from Harlan County, Ky., found stardom with the hit show singing all genres of music -- an admitted strategy. But once 'Country Week' rolled around, 'Idol' judges and fans alike clued in on his little secret.

Stacey is now trying to make a name for himself beyond 'Idol' into the genre where he found his true voice. And so far, so good. He released his debut country album last month to rave reviews and has a rising hit on his hands with its infectious first single, 'If You Didn't Love Me.' Stacey sat down with The Boot to talk about new music, newfound celebrity friends and the most important ladies in his life. And we certainly didn't let him get away before getting his candid opinions on the current season of the show that launched his career.

'If You Didn't Love Me' seems to be an ode to your wife, Kendra.

Definitely! I think people are picking up on that, especially if they recognize me from 'American Idol.' They saw my wife sitting out in the audience every week. She's just been amazing, encouraging and supportive. She takes care of two babies by herself a lot. So I'm glad I got to record something that I wanted to say to my wife. It was written by Jason Sellers, Wendell Mobley and Gary LeVox, the lead singer of Rascal Flatts . . . which is really cool, because I'm a huge Rascal Flatts fan.

What other songs on your album make you think of your family?

'Looking Like Love' makes me think of my wife, because there's a line in it that says, "I took a chance and kissed you right on your smile." And the first day I met my wife, I tried to kiss her . . . and she laughed at me. So I ended up kissing her on her teeth, because she was laughing! And then we married four months after we met, and we've been together ten years now.

Do you think your two daughters will follow in your musical footsteps?

McKayla, my little one, is the dancer. She loves 'Dancing With the Stars.' They had kids on the results show the other week, and as soon as she saw those kids, she was just dancing right along with them. It was the sweetest thing ever. And our 4-year-old, Chloe, is the singer. She sings 'All-American Girl' by Carrie Underwood perpetually. She loves Hannah Montana, Taylor Swift . . . and of course she sings all my songs, too! Chloe just made her ballet and tap dance debut at a recital, and it was the most adorable thing I've ever seen in my life.

Was it important to you to include some Christian-themed songs on the album?

Tim McGraw is a huge influence on me. I got to meet him on the 'American Idol' tour last summer, and he said to me, "If I can give you any advice, it's just to be honest." And I really thought about that. What do I need to say about myself as a person through my music? Yes, I love country music -- I grew up [listening to] Roy Acuff, Hank Williams and Bill Monroe. But a lot of my musical taste was shaped by contemporary Christian music, too. My dad is a pastor, and we weren't allowed to listen to much outside of Christian music and old-school country. But then I spent the last few years in a Navy rock band. So you get a blend of all of that with me.

Your voice has been compared to everyone from Keith Urban to Michael McDonald, so have you heard a comparison that's dead-on?

I don't know what I sound like to other people. There are so many people that I try to emulate. Roy Acuff and Hank Williams had this full, throaty sound that I tried to imitate as a kid. And when I first heard Marvin Gaye, I'd never heard someone sing with so much soul in my life, so I tried my best to imitate him, too. And I don't know anyone who can tell a story better than James Taylor. So there are just so many influences in my vocals. But I haven't ever listened to myself and thought I really sounded like anyone else . . . It's sink or swim with me -- I'd rather fail doing something people haven't heard than succeed in repeating something you've already heard.

What's the coolest venue you've ever played?

The Grand Ole Opry. My grandmother has been listening to the program since the 1930s. And this is a woman who, before 'American Idol,' never watched anything on television other than the Kentucky Wildcats and the news! So she actually drove in from Kentucky to watch me sing on the Opry stage. My whole family was there . . . And after I performed, I walked off stage and someone grabbed me -- it was Vince Gill. And he said, "How'd that feel, son?" And I said, "That was amazing!" He hugged me and then started laughing at me. And then he said, "Well, it's gonna feel like that every time." And then I walked out the door and saw Charlie Daniels, and he said to me, "So, what did you think?" And I said, "Man, I'm on cloud-nine right now." And he said, "You and me both, brother." It was just really special -- a huge milestone for me.

So you've met Tim McGraw, Vince Gill, Charlie Daniels . . . but who has made you star-struck?

We were having a party at Rupert Murdoch's house after 'Idol Gives Back,' and the first person I met when I walked through the front door was Tom Cruise. That was wild. And I met Ellen [DeGeneres] and Portia [de Rossi] for the first time. There were several big-name people, so I was just laughing. I mean, I'm a preacher's kid from Harlan County, Kentucky. And now all of a sudden I'm rubbing shoulders with these huge names. But star-struck? Yeah, I was star-struck with Tim [McGraw], I'm not gonna lie. Actually, I'm a goofy fan with pretty much everyone I meet. It's all I can do not to bring my camera out.

Do you have a prediction for this season's 'American Idol'?

David Cook! I said from the stage in Omaha when we were on the 'Idol' tour, "The winner of Season Seven of 'American Idol' is gonna audition right here in Omaha, Nebraska." And David's been my boy -- the only one left from the Nebraska auditions. It's been
a great season for 'Idol,' talent wise . . . Some shockers in eliminations, though. Michael Johns -- that dude is an incredible singer! And Carly [Smithson] is unbelievable -- the best voice this season, from a singer's perspective. She'd try to do stuff that was just unbelievable, even if it failed every now and then. But to me, the judges just didn't give her the credit she deserved. The judges pick their favorites and put their support behind them early on. And every contestant has an equal opportunity to make themselves the judges favorites in the first couple of weeks. So she probably just didn't get through to them.

Do you think country singers are at a disadvantage on 'Idol'?

Definitely! First of all, the show is to find a pop singer. Second of all, Simon [Cowell] hates country music. So we take that into consideration. For me, the only times I really had a choice of what to sing on the show, I chose crossover stuff. My first week, I sang Edwin McCain's 'I Could Not Ask For More,' because Sara Evans had also recorded it. The second week, I sang John Waite's 'Missing You,' which Alison Krauss has recorded. And then the third week, I did a LeAnn Rimes song, which I never should have done, but it was the only song left on the list that I knew! [laughs] But I tried to stay within that realm in showing them who I wanted to be -- a contemporary country artist with a love and appreciation for the traditional, as well. And I didn't get to really do that until 'Country Week.' So all of a sudden it was like, "Oh! You're a country singer!" So, unless you're someone like Carrie Underwood -- she can sing the phone book, and it would sound great -- she's beautiful, very talented, and they loved her from the get-go. But if you come in with a traditional country style from the start, you're going to have a hard time.

What's your opinion on former contestants who bash the show?

I don't get it. Why would you bite that hand that feeds you? This is a launching platform. First of all, they've chosen you out of a lot of people. There are hundreds of thousands of people who are capable of being on the show, and somehow you've made it through the ranks. I'll forever be grateful. I would still be doing music today, if it weren't for 'American Idol,' but certainly not at this level. I wouldn't see my videos on TV or hear my songs on the radio. I just can't understand anyone not being grateful for the experience.

You actually had a funny incident where you were mistaken for another 'Idol' alum.

I did! I was in New York at the Empire State Building, and this teenager came up to me and said, "Oh my goodness, you look like that guy from 'American Idol.'" And just when I was about to tell them that yes, I am, they were like, "You know, that guy who does [singing] 'It's not over....'" So they thought I was Chris Daughtry, but hey - I'll take it! He's a good looking guy! [laughs] So I never told them who I was. I didn't want to burst their bubble.