Except for That Shark (Shark?!), Morgan Evans Says He's Living Out His Life's Dream

With a memorable debut album and a schedule packed with tour dates, Morgan Evans has been living his dream for the past year. But over the holidays, he reveals, he also finally lived his nightmare.

The avid surfer had his first close encounter in the water with a shark.

“I was paddling back out,” he tells PEOPLE about the misadventure in his native Australia, “and I went underneath a wave, and I popped back up. Then as the next wave was coming towards me, I saw it swim through the wave sideways so I could see it side on. I think it was at least four feet. It was big — not like eat-you-alive big, but take a limb off, probably.”

The 33-year-old Aussie did a quick about-face on his board and headed back to the beach, where his wife, Kelsea Ballerini, was sunning. “I was like, did you see the shark?” he recalls. “Of course she didn’t, but yeah, it happened.”

The sighting, says Ballerini, just confirmed her own good judgment: “That’s why I don’t even put my toe in the ocean. I don’t mess with that.”

Sharks aside, life for Evans is going — oh, who can resist saying it? — swimmingly, as evidenced by his first No. 1 party, held Thursday back home in Nashville to celebrate the success of his effervescent “Kiss Somebody.”

Joined by his co-writers, seasoned hit-makers Josh Osborne and Chris DeStefano, Evans poignantly reflected on the importance of the occasion during a press conference. “This is the first time I get to experience this,” he said, “and I guess more than anything it means I get to keep doing this for a long time. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted to do — so it means everything.”

At the party, about 200 friends, colleagues, industry insiders and Mrs. Morgan Evans gathered to witness the singer and co-songwriters publicly accept their honor. Ballerini giggled as her husband playfully thanked her “for being super-hot”; he hastened to add more heartfelt appreciation to the 25-year-old artist for “also being my biggest supporter and also biggest critic when I need it.”

After the presentation ceremony, Ballerini reminisced about the early importance of the song. “I remember him coming home and having written with Josh for the first time and obviously hitting his stride with Chris DeStefano,” she recalled to PEOPLE. “I remember this song being the ticket to getting the record deal and the ticket to his first big American success, so getting to be a part of that whole process on the sidelines, it’s nice to be able to just wear jeans and show up and celebrate someone as a wife.”

The party was the coda to a luxurious amount of unwinding time that Evans has been enjoying before heading back out on the road. Beginning Friday, he’s lending back-to-back support to two of 2019’s hottest tickets, Old Dominion’s “Make It Sweet” tour and the Dan + Shay tour.

Over the holidays, he and Ballerini did something they’ve never done before: spend 25 straight days together. (Back on the CMA Awards red carpet in November, Ballerini estimated to PEOPLE that their touring schedules meant they’d spent “less than 30 percent” of their first year of marriage with each other.)

“It was so good, it was so good,” Evans said of their holiday break, obviously relishing the memory of all the together time, which included a couple of weeks visiting his family and friends back in Australia.

Ballerini’s mom, Carla, made her first trip Down Under with the couple, and Evans said he enjoyed introducing his mother-in-law to Newcastle, his coastal hometown. “It was cool to be able to show someone, and especially someone so close to me, where I grew up and how I grew up and the people that I grew up around,” he said.

Otherwise, he indulged in daily surfing (boldly returning to the water the day after the shark sighting), lots of visits with “grandparents and parents and cousins,” swimming, board games, quoits — and hearing himself on the radio. Current single “Day Drunk” has blown up in Australia, holding the No. 1 country spot for 21 weeks and the No. 1 all-genre spot for two weeks.

“The way the music’s been embraced down there, it’s just insane,” Evans says. “The way that they sing ‘Day Drunk,’ it’s like, wow, this could be happening everywhere, and so that’s an inspiring feeling and makes me want to get back here [to the United States] and do more.”

The one thing that he and Ballerini somehow managed to avoid during their holiday was making more music. “We didn’t even really play guitar or sing,” he said. “We made a very conscious decision to really take the time off — even though a week and a half in, we were both so ready to get back to it. It was nice to have the extra time to actually sink into a holiday kind of vibe.”

RELATED VIDEO: Morgan Evans Details His and Wife Kelsea Ballerini’s Karaoke Night with Ed Sheeran

Now that he’s hitting the road again, Evans says he’s still happily traveling light as one of a growing list of artists (most notably Ed Sheeran) who create their own one-man band with a loop pedal. What started out as an economizing necessity, he says, has turned into his go-to accompaniment, lending his sound “an acoustic guitar-driven feeling.”

Evans has a new loop pedal with a few “new tricks” going with him on the next two tours. After that, he’s not sure whether he’ll stick with the electronics. “I feel like taking it day by day or tour by tour,” he said, adding that his sights are set on the bigger picture: “If I can be better playing tomorrow than I was yesterday … that’s always what I’m trying to do.”

Though two hectic schedules are now taking him and Ballerini in different directions, Evans is certain they will be together for one special night: the Grammy Awards on Feb. 10.  Ballerini’s Unapologetically is nominated for best country album.

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” says Evans. “I’m finishing a show in D.C. the night before and getting on the earliest flight to L.A. to be there and cheer when they say her name.”

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