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August 14, 2018 12:45 PM

Blake Shelton has had many inspirations on his road to becoming one of the biggest country music stars in the world. But the 42-year-old singer says the greatest heroes in his life are his friends.

“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.”

The “I Lived It” singer may have a “handful” of heroes in his corner, but when it comes to his music hero, one name comes to mind: Earl Thomas Conley.

Blake Shelton

Shelton recalls a special moment at the 2014 Country Music Association awards, where he won the honor for male vocalist of the year.

“I noticed Earl Thomas Conley had never won that award. I don’t know, it struck me,” the singer says. “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.”

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Later that evening, Shelton got a text from Conley, thanking him for the gesture, he says.

“He said it had been a lot of years since he had heard his name mentioned from that stage,” Shelton recalls of the conversation.

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Shelton says Conley helped pen his 2001 track “All Over Me,” his second single.

This isn’t the first time Shelton has sung Conley’s praises. In 2014, he revealed that it was Conley’s music that helped him to envision himself as a big country music star.

“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,” he said then.

“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.”

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