At 17, Shelton, who performs at local honky-tonks, leaves his native Ada, Okla., for Nashville in search of a record deal. Along the way he meets country legend Bobby Braddock, who helps Shelton develop as an artist while he makes the rounds as a demo singer in the country music capital. "That's when the dream is so far off it seems like it will never happen," the up-and-comer reflected of his pre-fame days to CNN.
After years of making the rounds in Nashville, Shelton finally releases his self-titled debut, boasting his first No. 1 single "Austin," which spends five weeks at the top of Billboards Hot Country Singles chart. The album also helps earn Shelton a top new male vocalist ACM nomination in 2002. "I love what I do for a living," he gushed at the time. "I can't think of a better situation."
With the release of his second album The Dreamer, Shelton spends most of the year on tour with Toby Keith and receives his first CMA Award nomination for new artist of the year. Although he doesn't take home the prize, he does nab a bride in girlfriend Kaynette Williams, whom he weds on Nov. 17. Their marriage goes bust nearly three years later.
A newly single Shelton is paired with newcomer Miranda Lambert for CMT's "100 Greatest Duets" special, where the duo sings "You're The Reason God Made Oklahoma." "We got up there on stage for rehearsal and something just happened, I think we both knew it, " Shelton says of their first meeting. "I'm from southern Oklahoma, she's from north Texas and we had a lot to talk about." Before long, Lambert moves to Oklahoma, a few miles down the road from Shelton.
Shelton releases his fifth album, Startin' Fires, and hits the road with Lambert on a joint tour. "We didn't know if we would kill each other or become closer," Lambert jokes to PEOPLE of touring with her man, who is listed as one of PEOPLE Country's hottest guys. "Knowing that I'm one of the hot guys of country its a strange feeling," Shelton says.
Shelton releases Hillbilly Bone, a six-pack album of songs, which heats up the charts with its title track. "When I first heard 'Hillbilly Bone,' I knew it was one of those songs that would kick the door down, and who better to kick the door down with me than my buddy Trace," he says of the Grammy-nominated duet with Trace Adkins. Eight years after earning his first ACM nomination, Shelton finally takes home the award for vocal event of the year with his duet partner for the down-home ode.
Shelton surprises Lambert by popping the question with a diamond-and-platinum ring deep in the Oklahoma woods. "I was wearing a camo jacket and no makeup," Lambert tells PEOPLE of the proposal. Shelton adds, "We've been together long enough to know that we're more miserable apart than we are together. I think we're meant to be together, so we're just going to do something about it – finally!"
Shelton is inducted into the Grand Ole Opry by pal Trace Adkins. "This is the reason you come to Nashville if you're me," Shelton says of the honor. "I get the same feeling walking into the Opry House as I do when I see one of my heroes. The Grand Ole Opry is an artist, and I am proud to be one of its songs."
The year just keeps getting better for Shelton, who takes home two trophies at the CMA Awards, including the highly coveted male vocalist of the year award, beating out the reigning three-time winner Brad Paisley. "It's about 34 years worth of steps right there for me, y'all," the singer says during his acceptance speech. "This is a really big deal for me."
With his signature charm and witty banter, Shelton joins the judging panel of NBC's new singing competition The Voice, alongside Christina Aguilera, Maroon 5's Adam Levine and Cee Lo Green. "I'm not sure The Voice knows what they signed on for by bringing me on the show," he jokes in a statement.
BIOGRAPHY (top to bottom): Justin Kahn/WireImage; Rusty Russell/Getty; Ed Rode/CMT; Mark J. Terrill/AP; Denise Truscello/Wireimage; Courtesy Miranda Lambert; Royce DeGrie/Getty; Andrew Walker/Getty; Michael Tran/FilmMagic