Aaron Lewis is the tatted-out frontman for the multiplatinum-selling rock outfit Staind. You can now add "authentic country artist" to his description.
Moonlighting from his hard-rock day job, Lewis made a splash in the country world when his 2011 debut solo EP, "Town Line," reached No. 1 on the Billboard country albums chart. He returns now with his full-length solo country manifesto, "The Road" (Blaster Records), which drops on Tuesday.
The bottom-line review? "The Road" is one of the best and most cohesive country releases of the year. That doesn't mean Lewis' road to Nashville has been smooth. It's not always easy for an artist to transition in the public eye from one genre to the next. Does Lewis feel he's gotten resistance for being a rocker gone country?
"Absolutely," he says in a phone interview. "I've heard, 'He's not country, he's from Massachusetts.' My answer to that is: Have you ever been to Massachusetts? Most of Massachusetts is extremely rural and old. (I live in) a town of 1,200 people that was established long before the Declaration of Independence."
Although Lewis first made his name in the rock world, his earliest musical influence was country music via his baby-sitting grandfather. "He was a huge country fan," Lewis recalls. "It was Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings and George Jones — that old school, tear-at-your-heart-strings country. Then life changes and twists and turns and goes in different directions. We moved away from Vermont where my grandfather was and there was really no more country music in my life. All my friends listened to rock music and that inevitably led me to being in a rock band."
His reintroduction to country music came in 1999, when Staind toured with Kid Rock. Staind's tour bus had too many people and not enough beds, so Lewis took every opportunity to ride on Kid Rock's bus. The music he heard there was the soundtrack of his childhood. "The only thing on the stereo was old country music," Lewis says. "It was a blast from the past. It brought back all these memories. I haven't been able to get away from it since."
The first country song Lewis penned was "Country Boy." That number became the centerpiece for his "Town Line" EP and featured cameos from George Jones and Charlie Daniels. "Once I wrote 'Country Boy' and started playing it out, people responded to it from the word go," he recalls. "And here I am."
Lewis is a skillful singer-songwriter with a deep, rough-hewn, unmistakable stamp of a voice and a gift for emotional detail. He brings those abilities to bear on "The Road." He wrote all but one of the 10 tracks and there's not a weak cut in the bunch. It's a sharply observed country rock release that doesn't stint on the crying pedal steel guitar.
In the studio he worked with a number of Nashville's best session players, including guitarist Brent Mason, drummer Eddie Bayers and pedal steel guitarist Paul Franklin. They cut the songs live in the studio, many of them in one take. Lewis gave the musicians creative freedom, and that spontaneity shows. This is the sound of the A-team at its fluid and creative best.
"One of the thought processes behind (the recording) was to not overproduce it the way so much of today's country is," Lewis says. "(I wanted to) record it in a manner that was conducive with the old school. It's big and it's round and it's warm."
Musically the songs are a smart and eclectic mix of unique country influences. The title track crunches and snarls a la Merle Haggard and the Strangers. "State Lines" echoes the road-warrior ethos of Waylon and Willie. "Lessons Learned" recalls the distinctive guitar work of the Marshall Tucker Band's late Toy Caldwell.
Lewis' country influences are strong in the mix, but the songs here are clearly his own.
"I did come to Nashville as a rock guy and I made a country album," he explains. "But here's the big difference: I came to Nashville and I recorded my songs. I didn't go to the vast amounts of catalog or songs from Nashville songwriters that are available. These are my songs. I wrote these songs. They pertain to my life."
Much of that recent life involved Lewis pulling double duty in his music career. He juggled a hectic schedule, sandwiching recording sessions for his country album between Staind tour dates. "Staind would play three or four shows in a row," he recalls. "On the fifth day, when I was supposed to have a day off, I would get on the earliest flight to Nashville, record for the day, turn around, jump on a plane, go back to the tour and play three or four more shows in a row. Put that on repeat for the Staind tour."
With his raw edge and solid commitment to older country traditions, Lewis is emerging as one of the most noteworthy voices in country. In the snarling song "Party in Hell" he name-checks a kindred spirit, the outlaw singer-songwriter Jamey Johnson. In a number of ways, Johnson is his closest counterpart in contemporary country music. Both artists write their own material, have an eclectic fan base and champion hard country over country-pop.
"We are both purely influenced by the old country," Lewis says about Johnson. "I think both of us feel pretty firmly that the country genre in general at this moment is pretty watered down."
Lewis notes that his live country audience runs the gamut. "It's an amazing, eclectic mix," he says. "There are people from 80 years old to those who are just old enough to get into the venue. There are Goth kids to older couples to rockers to (fans in) big Stetson hats and silver belt buckles and cowboy boots. They all walk away at the end of the night happy."
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