There's a reason why Rodney Atkins is about to shake things up in country music.
It's not just his voice, strong and expressive though it is. And it's not the way he seizes the spotlight and doesn't let go until he's turned another audience into believers.
The secret? He's not afraid.
Not afraid, for example, to write with absolute candor. The sly line that opens "Sing Along" will leave every guy feeling just a little sheepish, and confirm one thing that every girl suspects about men. On the other end of the scale, you won't hear many singers speak with the sentiment that's already making "Honesty" something of a classic.
More than that, this rangy native of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, isn't afraid to break down musical barriers. Throughout Rodney Atkins, his debut release for Curb, he tells the kinds of stories that come from country -- but that doesn't make him country all the way. In his aggressive performances and stadium-sized production, thundering drums and slashing guitars duke it out with fiddles and steel guitars. You can't pigeonhole the sound -- but you can't ignore it either.
For Atkins, it's all about mixing the strengths of two great traditions. "What I love about rock is that it sounds so good," he insists. "I still remember the first time I heard a Def Leppard record years ago; it sounded incredible. The only problem is that half the time I don't know what they're singing about. On my record I'm putting the two together: I'm singing about things that are real to me, but I'm giving you something that will sound great on your stereo -- not just compared to country acts, but to anything you want to hear."
Big plans, which come to life big-time on Rodney Atkins. But before you listen to the new sound of country music, look back to where it was born ... back to the Appalachian foothills, where a young boy grew up not knowing how lucky he was even to be alive ...
"The first time I heard Rodney Atkins' 'Honesty' I knew it was a very important song for the country radio format. It had everything that great country stories have!"
Phil Sweetland, New York Times Country Music and Radio Correspondent
"Cumberland Gap was a great place to grow up," Atkins says. "It's a place where we'd play guitars on the front porch, or jump in the car and go down to swim in the river. It's a place where you didn't have to lock your doors at night. Somebody from a larger city would think there's nothing to do, but to me it was wonderful."
Still, a shadow or two darkened this idyllic landscape. Atkins was an adopted child; as an infant at the Holston Methodist Home for Children in Greenville, thirty miles from his birthplace in Knoxville, he was so sick that two couples who had taken him home returned him just a few days later. A third couple adopted him as well and, even though Rodney's ailments worsened, they refused to give him up. "It never crossed their mind to take me back," is how Rodney explains it. "I was theirs."
Times were sometimes tough at the Atkins home, but his parents made sure that his start in life was easier than theirs had been. His mother had been raised in a coal mining family near a tannery camp, and his dad survived an upbringing marked by poverty and episodes of abuse. None of their deprivations rubbed off on their adopted son. In fact, years would pass before Rodney understood just how much he had inherited from them.
"About two and a half years ago, after church, we were at my sister's house for dinner," he remembers. "We're looking at family photo albums, making fun of old haircuts. In the back of one album I found this picture of my dad. He's ten years old, skinny and scrawny, barefoot. That picture stirred a conversation that day about how he grew up, and where my parents came from. I learned how he was so afraid sometimes that he would sneak out through his window and sleep in this cave he'd found nearby, then sneak back in the next morning -- when he was six years old.
"That night, after I went home, it got to me that my mom and dad were punished when they were kids, but they gave me a normal life. I carried that picture home with me, laid it on the kitchen table, and just started writing. 'I've got a picture of him, barefoot in the mud, behind his grandpa's plow and two gray mules" -- it just kind of fell out. 'My Old Man' was my way of saying thank you."
When not doing chores or playing baseball with his friends, Rodney spent time in high school with his guitar. He played, solo or with a band, at county fairs, festivals, and shopping malls, most of the time losing money on expenses. Eventually, as a psychology major at Tennessee Tech in Cookeville, he started visiting Nashville, playing more gigs and writing songs. Part of his degree program required that he get field experience, which led him to work as a clinical counselor at the Woodland Residential Center.
It was, Rodney remembers, "a pretty intense job. There were gang members from Memphis in there. There were boys who had been tragically abused and gotten busted for trying to stab a blind man for his money while he was begging on the corner. Some of those boys just wanted to cry. Some wanted to pound my head into the pavement.
"Soon I realized that if some guy was ready to 'get bucked,' which means to break out of the place, my guitar could be like medicine; it could bring him down. I could sit down with a kid from the roughest part of Memphis, a sixteen-year-old who had already committed assault thirty times, and take my guitar and sing 'Fire And Rain' or 'Please Come to Boston,' and he would drop the fašade of being a badass. That taught me how spiritual music can really be."
He also did odd jobs to pay his way through school. It was while driving a delivery truck that he met the woman who would become his wife. Today Rodney gives her full credit for supporting him as he pursued his musical ambitions; they even survived a recording schedule that had him in the studio the day after their wedding.
Before long word spread about the big-voiced singer whose sound drew from Aerosmith as much as Alan Jackson. Curb signed him up, and in short order Atkins was in -- and out of -- the studio, with finished tracks under his belt. It was the
opportunity he'd always hoped for... but music, like most good things, isn't to be taken lightly, and something about this project seemed a little too easy.
"After I finished it, I ran into [label president] Mike Curb," Rodney says. "He asked me how I felt about the album. I said, 'Well, it's obviously great to get to make an album, but you know, I don't feel very connected to it. What's on this CD just doesn't match what I do when I play onstage. What I'd really like to do is to just start all over.' And Mike said, 'I agree. If you want to cut twenty more sides and mix 'em all thirty times, do it.'"
He never did release that first album ...
Instead, Atkins spent more than two years scouting different engineers and producers, writing and tracking down songs that told his story, and finessing a sound that slammed elements of rock and country together with more concern for making an impact than fitting anyone's preconceptions. For his engineer and co-producer he chose Mike Shipley, a celebrated genre-jumper whose credits include Green Day, Def Leppard, Devo, Cheap Trick ... as well as Faith Hill, Tim McGraw, and Shania Twain. The musicians selected for the project were equally responsive to Rodney's vision, all the way down to the acoustic guitar parts.
"I got Bruce Gaitsch, who co-wrote 'Sing Along' with me, to come in on the sessions," Atkins says. "He's played with Madonna and Chicago, and when I told him I wanted something like Sheryl Crow in the rhythm, he got it. 'What's Left Of Me' is all about Bruce slamming that acoustic guitar right into your face. That's how I play guitar. I'm nowhere as good as Bruce, but I beat the heck out of it onstage; when we brought that to the studio, it completely changed everything."
That kind of energy permeates Rodney Atkins. Whether importing unorthodox instruments, such as the Greek bouzouki brought in for "Someone To Share It With" and "The Man I Am Today," or deliberately bypassing A-team players to find musicians with maybe a little less reverence and a little more unpredictability, Atkins followed a unique path on this project. Against all odds, the results turn out to be accessible, even hit material, precisely because they're based on a passion for performance and a resolution to tell the truth.
"Rodney Atkins deserves to be a star! His voice, charisma and hard work have made him a powerhouse entertainer and his new Curb record ('Honesty') is an impressive debut."
Crystal Caviness, United Press International
Atkins speaks quietly and maintains a deferential politeness that comes from being brought up right. Whether speaking or listening, he fixes his gaze on whomever he's with. There's a sense that no nuance escapes his attention, and that he would ever use what he learns about people to betray a confidence, or tell a lie.
Night after night, he says, signs come to him that the music on this album is already reaching people. He talks about the concert where, as he sang "Honesty," he saw a troubled couple in the audience soften toward each other, tears coming from her eyes and a kind of understanding coming into his. He remembers when a frantic fan pounded on his tour bus as it was pulling out, pleading even for a lyric sheet for that song, to give to his wife as a gesture of reconciliation. Or the many people who have thanked him for writing "My Old Man" and asked for a copy to give to their parents.
Today, though, he's talking about a song that's yet to be written, about his own first birth child, Elijah. "He's my world," Rodney says. "I was with my wife after he was born. Just as the nurse was leaving the room, she turned back and said, 'Oh, by the way. His blood type is A-Positive.' That's my blood type, and it hit me right then that he's the only blood relative I know on this planet. I just completely lost it -- I still do sometimes, when I think about it."
Has he written a song about Elijah? Rodney smiles. "I've come up with a few ideas but I'm still searching for that song."
Be sure of this: A song will come, but only after it's found the same balance of eloquence, compassion, and honesty that's achieved throughout the remarkable Rodney Atkins.
--- from the official Rodney Atkins website