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Rodney Atkins talks 'Take a Back Road' success and Hank Williams Jr. controversy
How does this country singer tackle politics in his work?
Rodney Atkins’ newest album is poised to become a best-seller, and even to debut in the top tier of the albums chart next week, all because of the “road.”
“Take a Back Road” – the single – is one of the most beloved and successful tracks in the country singer’s history, while the album – of the same name – is poised to be among Atkins’ best-charting, with the help, too, of preceding single “Farmer’s Daughter.”
Atkins is married, and with a 10-year-old son, and has a intense history as an adopted child, so his propensity to tackle country’s favorite themes of family and devotion comes easily, especially on this new effort. In our interview this week, Atkins expressed a comfort in his own skin (“and in my blue jeans”). Which sometimes involves avoiding his own press: “The first thing that pops up first on Google, that’s not the best thing to be reading right then…”
Check out what Atkins has to say on his “Road” success, his feelings on music in this political season and how he separates himself from other solo male country singers.
You’ve had several country radio hits, some ACMs, some CMAs, sold enough for a No. 3 album and toured with your heroes. How do gauge your own success? What are you goals now?
I just keep my head down. With radio, people are always calling out when a song is a hit, or have told me [songs] sounds like we’re catering to radio. I don’t know what that crap means. How do you get your songs heard to begin with is impossible to figure out. Of course I believe it’s important to have hits, to have sales. Y’know, to maintain your job. Ultimately, it’s less about having the goals than what you do with your success. Getting to work with the National Council for Adoption, to work with the children’s home that I was adopted form… it’s cool getting kids to pay attention to those songs. Everything is related and it gives you an opportunity to make a difference in those kids’ lives.
I want to make a live show better and better and better. Effect folks’ lives positively. My son turned 10 last week. That’s always stuff that keeps you very driven.
You sing a lot about maintaining your family life, as well as about the draw of the road and about rural values. How do you distinguish yourself from other singers that tackle the same stuff?
The way you separate yourself… you just got to keep all in your heart. I do not in any way try to follow a trend. I actively try to avoid it. “If You’re Going Through Hell” came out of that feeling. Im not singing about, like, “I’m so country that I smell like a barn.” The audience that I think I’m singing to, they know I believe in the rural heart. Where I grew up in East Tennessee, if you get stuck, you could go knock on any house and they’d help you. That’s the rural heart. Same thing can happen in the Middle of the Bronx or Manhattan, with someone like me on 53rd and 2nd. Stop and ask and get directions from a complete stranger. My songs have gone No. 1 in Canada. They’re anywhere. That’s who you’re singing to.
“Take a Back Road” sounds like it shares the title as a bunch of different songs in country. But they’re not the same, not at all. You could say the same thing about other formats, like, to me they all sound the same. But when you’re inside of it… it’s sort of like baseball players. For someone’s who’s not a fan of baseball, all the players do the same stuff, but I could tell you how they’re all different. It’s all in how deep you want to dig into it. I try to find and afford songs that I feel like are very timeless songs.
But particularly in country music, country fans want to feel close to their favorite singers and entertainers. Assuming you like to enjoy some privacy, how do you set up boundries of how far you’ll let the audience see into your life? Or do you?
If you know my music, then you know me. It’s pretty simple. It’s fun to hear people yelling out, “Hey Rodney” and I’m just walking down the street. It’s like you’re singing to friends you just might never met yet. But I don’t feel it necessary to put every situation up on the internet. Like I met Ernie Banks, Mr. Cub, this week. I was in awe. It was this special moment but I kinda didn’t need to put that out everywhere. If my son’s waiting for me at home with a fishing pole or baseball glove in his hand, I’m not gonna put that aside because I need to talk about Ernie Banks on Twitter.
Do you read your own press – reviews and interviews?
I have before a couple times. And just got slammed, shredded, on some of those song reviews. And then those songs became No. 1s. I read up on “Hell” and “Back Road” because I was excited about it. But the first thing that pops up first on Google, that’s not the best thing to be reading right then. I’ve learned my lesson. The people who ultimately decide what works and don’t work… you just give it a couple weeks.
Like, that Friday Morning Quarterback stuff. It’s like they didn’t even listen to the songs. Just a bunch of bull-shhh. Like, they do that because they know they’d never have to go toe to toe in the ring with anybody over it. I never had understood that. I’m not the one to debate and argue. I just spend my time doing something positive.
So you look to the people closest to you for criticism and to improve your album. Were there any songs you had to fight for on this album?
“He’s Mine.” I really believed in that song, I believed in what it says, the way it goes about unconditional love. It’s got more edge than anything we ever cut.
I noticed a lot of the songs that you co-wrote on the record have more rock to them, like they started out as rock rather than country songs.
Some of those things, they start out one way on the work tape demo, and that’s the place where we go, “This sounds like something I’ve heard before… I’m hearing something more fun.” Songs like that get simplified because it was a smaller band we were working with. You put so many instrument on a record, you lose a lot of dynamics of what you’re really hearing in your head… there is a rockin’ side to it, there’s also softer and tender songs, romantic songs than we’ve never done before. But instead of straight-up love songs, they talk about the reality of love, that it’s not easy or perfect or simple lust in relationships. It’s a little bit tougher. “Feet” -- some people say it sounds like a religious song -- but it’s a very serious, like what happens when you start knocking heads at 11:30, when things get dark .
But you have to think of the live show – if it was full of ballads, it would make you crazy. You think it rocks on the album, just wait til we get it out there with the band live. Its gonna rock much harder. Just like the song “The Corner”… it reminded me of [ballad] “You Needed Me.” I played the first version of it for my son and he did not pay attention to it at all. How do you get a kid in a “Guitar Hero” generation to pay attention? You put some divebombs, some edge on it. Now he loves it.
What do you think of this particular political season, how presidential politics and protests kind of brings out the activism in artists, brings out these vocalizations? Like, Radiohead with Occupy Wall Street or Hank Williams Jr. on President Obama…
Like I told you, I’m about the rural heart, I’m… not jaded by politics. Hank Jr. and the football theme… I don’t know. I try to think in terms of an honest model for my kids and being part of the National Council for Adoption -- which is based in D.C… how are our choices going to affect their future. And about, ultimately, those soldiers going to war for believing in the rural heart. I want to do whatever’s gonna promote that. They’e goint to war to fight for the freedoms against places and situations where people don’t have a choice. I didn’t grow up in a military family, but meeting some soldiers, to see how serious they take our freedoms, you owe it to…consider your [political] choices, to make them count. What you really believe makes a difference.
Does it matter who I think who is in office? If that effects the outcome of who’s in there? I see it as a reason why I like to keep my mouth shut. But it’s all about that passion scale, the need to say something. If I get that opportunity, if I’m gonna have a voice, it’s gonna be about the things most important to me – about adoption, soldiers.
People – including some artists – yak and go on and on and on and on and on, rambling on about politics. And then there’s people who roll their sleeves up and go to work. It’s not about controlling people and fans with money and fame, it’s about making a difference in the world… I see why it’s a tough call. Some people feel passionate about that. My way is to sing about that kind of stuff that matters to me, and if you listen closely, it’s in there.