by Tracy Dietlin
After a long successful career as the front-man for the rock band Staind, Aaron Lewis decided to go country. I’m not talking about just doing a country duet during a guest appearance on an awards show. I mean hunkering down and establishing himself as a true country artist. Lewis has given his country career the same passion and dedication he gave rock. And it has paid off. In 2011, he released his debut solo EP ‘Town Line,’ which entered the Billboard Country Albums chart at #1 and produced the ACM-nominated, gold-selling single “Country Boy.” He also earned two nominations in the “Vocal Event of the Year” category as artist and co-producer of the single along with his guest artists, George Jones and Charlie Daniels. The video has already been viewed over 15 million times on YouTube and also garnered him his first two CMT Music Award nominations last year. Lewis is set to release his full-length CD, ‘The Road,’ later this summer and the first single, “Endless Summer,” is already heating up country radio stations. Lewis was kind enough to take time to sit down with me right before his Stagecoach performance.
CV Weekly: What made you decide to go from rock to country?
Aaron Lewis: Country was the first music I listened to growing up in Vermont. I’ve really always been country. It was just from the exposure from spending so much time with my Grandfather and he was a huge country music fan. It was the old guard. It was George Jones, Willie Nelson, Hank Jr., Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash.
CVW: Where do you live now?
AL: I live in a town of 1200 people in Massachusetts. John Hancock used to live in my town. It was a town before the Declaration of Independence was even signed.
CVW: What was it like recoding with George Jones and Charlie Daniels?
AL: I wasn’t lucky enough to be there when George did his part in Nashville but I was there with Charlie and we had a real good time. Charlie and I see eye to eye on a lot of things. (Smiling)
CVW: What’s the difference from touring with your rock band and as a solo country artist?
AL: Just the setting really. It’s still just as difficult. But it’s still living the dream that so many of us share.
I truly believe that good songs are just good songs and regardless of the genre jumping I felt like I had put together a really good collection of songs but just in a different style. I’ve always been very aware of not allowing myself to be pigeon-holed and I just felt like that at 40 years old that’s where I was feeling it. As a person I’m pretty country as far as where I live and who I am but life’s twists and turns took me in a rock direction for many years and like I said I’m 40 now and I’m feeling country. I’m not really feeling like the angry young man that I was during all of the rock stuff.
CVW: Sometimes I think we want our stars/idols to stay the same. What has been the reaction to you going country. Are your rock fans embracing it?
AL: That’s the toughest part is living up to the expectations that are put upon you. Living up to who it is that the fans actually think that you are. The country fans are new fans and the rock are die-hard fans. But I’ve heard a lot of my fans say that they would never have listened to country before and now they are expanding their country horizons after hearing my record and saying ‘wow this isn’t as twangy and abrasive as I thought it was going to be.’
CVW: I got chills the first time I listened to “Country Boy,” it’s such a personal song. And “Endless Summer” is upbeat. Can you talk a bit about them?
AL: “Country Boy” is my story plain and simple and “Endless Summer” just goes to show that I really can write a happy song (laughing). And it’s the closest thing I’ve written to a modern day country song. Everything else is more traditionally centered. My inspiration for country is the old stuff.
CVW: What would you say the highlight of your country career has been?
AL: Sitting in the studio with Charlie. I know my Grandfather was sitting there with us looking down with a big old smile on his face.
CVW: What was it like working with producer James Stroud who has produced Toby Keith and Tim McGraw to name a few?
AL: There were a few producers that were thrown out to me and after talking to James I didn’t make any more phone calls. We just totally hit it off. He had a huge respect for me for all the songs I had written in my career and he really allowed me to just run with it. He insisted that I get producer credit on the record not just co-producer but produced by both of us with equal billing. He’s really an amazing guy. He used to be Bob Seger’s drummer and was a huge session musician back in the day. He’s been the president of record labels and publishing companies.
CVW: What was it like doing the juggling act between touring with Staind and recording this album?
AL: I recorded this whole album while I was out on the road with Staind. On my days off I would fly into Nashville and work for the day and then fly back to wherever I was on tour and keep going. That’s why it has a lot of songs about the process and ended up with the title ‘The Road.’ I haven’t really changed anything. I’m still on the road with Staind. I just did 3 shows with them in a row before coming here to Stagecoach.
CVW: So how is it going back and forth. Being on stage one day playing rock with your band and the next performing solo as a country artist?
AL: To coin a phrase from an earlier interview, it’s musical whiplash. Doing the Staind thing I’m leaving pieces of my vocal chords on the stage every night. And doing the country thing is a much more controlled environment. And leaving pieces of your voice on stage every night isn’t really conducive to slamming on the brakes and doing a completely acoustic show in the midst of it. So today I might be a little rough around the edges. It’s very possible. I left a bit of my voice on stage last night and of course we as a band decided we were going to play one of the heaviest sets we’ve played in a long time. So everything is completely stacked against me for today.
Turns out Lewis’ vocal chords were perfectly intact when he performed his 10 song set to a packed Palomino tent. He started off with the title-track to the new disc, ‘The Road,’ and then went right into the fan favorite from Staind, “Outside.” The crowd went crazy and even more so later on when he delivered “It’s Been Awhile,” with everyone singing along to the lyrics. But it was obvious that the majority of the people weren’t just there in hopes of hearing Staind songs- they were there to hear Aaron Lewis the “Country Boy.” One of my favorites was “Lessons Learned,” which made it clear that Lewis can hang with the big boys of country like Hank Jr. and is definitely not out of his league. Bottom line is Lewis is a gifted songwriter no matter what genre he puts his pen to. He also has that deep rock voice that can make you melt no matter what he’s singing and the ability to turn up the country twang when needed. On the song, “Red, White & Blue,” he had the crowd chanting USA with fist pumps in the air and again as he closed the show appropriately with “Country Boy.”