I admit that I'm not huge on most contemporary country music. I grew up on the likes of Waylon and Willie and got to see Loretta Lynn with Conway Twitty and George Jones with Tammy Wynette at an early age. Most of the time, when I hear new acts on country radio, they strike me as merely another pop artist wrapped in a little twang to get a country deal because the pop market won't accept them.
On occasion, though, I hear an act that grabs me by the ear and once I give them some time and attention, they draw me in with a sincerity in their songs. Over the past year, Rodney Atkins was one of the few country artists to do that.
Admittedly, when I first heard the title track to his latest album, Take a Back Road, I thought it was Tim McGraw. Atkins shares both a vocal timbre and a certain ability to deliver a story with McGraw that not many others can match. The emergence of "He's Mine" convinced me to dig up the album and once I did, the record unfolded in layers, revealing stories about relationships and keeping in touch with your roots that ended up being one of my favorite records of the year. It certainly wasn't the most intricate or technical album, but it proved to be one of the most enjoyable and easy to listen to in my library.
When it was announced that Atkins would be returning to Tulsa for a show at The Joint this Thursday night, I had to make an effort to locate Atkins and discuss not only the album, but his approach to songwriting. He turned out to be a gentleman as grounded and down to earth as his persona.
When asked about the writing and song selection process, Atkins was incredibly open. "My first goal is to not write or co-write every song," he said. "My goal is to find songs that you can't tell the difference between if I wrote it or someone else did. Sometimes I find a song that I like and by the time I'm done with it, it's not the same as it started out. That's just part of the process."
"The bottom line is, if you want to have a great album and want to be a great artist, it all goes down to having great songs," he said.
"I don't really know who writes the songs, to be honest," he continued. "A lot of people think, 'Well, this one was written by this guy and he's had all these hits.' I don't worry about that. I just listen to the songs and pick the ones that I think will work for me."
"With a whole bunch of stuff you hear on the radio, it's just the emperor's new clothes. If you hear a number one single, but three days later, you don't remember anything about it, there's really nothing there," Atkins said. "That's why I love being a producer and taking ownership of the songs and how they sound. It's like the difference between owning a car and working on it and just driving it."
That hands-on approach is exactly what has set Atkins apart from many of his peers, especially as he takes on the producer's role with much of his material, taking control of his sound and image on the albums.
"You want to be true to who you are, that's for sure, but you also don't want to get lost in the fray," Atkins explained of his approach to writing and producing. "At first, a lot of people thought I sounded like Tim McGraw. Even his daughter supposedly told him, 'I really like your new song, 'If You're Going Through Hell'' and when he told her he didn't record that song, she told him, 'Well, you should have.'"
Although the comparisons to McGraw were frequent early in his career and continue to come on occasion, Atkins takes it all in stride. "Mostly, I just take my time when I make records, and try making them sound a little different. We don't go in with a band and record everything all at once; we go in and record one track at a time. I want a Tele[caster] to sound like a Tele. That's all part of our time and making the records stand out."
Of course, the recording process itself is just part of the equation. When listening to Atkins' albums from front to back, he also has a way of stringing the songs together to create a coherent package. When asked if he deliberates over his album's track order, he said, "Sometimes I sweat it and sometimes I fight for it."
"With the Going Through Hell album, the label wanted to put the single first, because that's the song people knew and wanted to hear, but I wanted "These Are My People" to be first. I knew that this was my first shot at introducing myself and what I was about and I thought that song represented me well, so I stood my ground," he said.
"With that album, I went through a lot of being told what I could and couldn't do and what people don't listen to," Atkins added. "The label wasn't comfortable with 'Cleaning the Gun' and having gun in the title and even changed the title track and put the original title in parenthesis (Before the Devil Even Knows) because they thought it sounded too negative, but it's not a negative song. I went through a lot of that, but stood my ground."
For the most part, however, Atkins shared that he tries to put his songs in order like chapters to tell a story and hops his listeners hear them that way.
Currently finishing out the touring cycle for Take A Back Road, Atkins is preparing to work on a new album for release later this year. When asked if he had been working up new material while on tour, he shared that "I write a little bit on the road, but mostly wait until I get home to clear my head and start fresh."
He also shared that this past touring cycle ended with shows on December 18 and 19 and he's been enjoying is time off working on the new album and spending time with his sons.
"I spent most of my time off in the woods, hunting deer in Wisconsin in the snow, to clear my head" Atkins said. "That's my yoga."
Atkins also said that he's got five songs written for the new album, with all of them sounding a little different than what he's done previously. This week's date at The Joint falls in the middle of his scheduled time off, but Atkins said, "This date came in before the end of the year. I kept a handful of dates and this one just worked out great because of the timing and to break things up a little bit. Other than that, I've not booked a whole lot until late March, so it will be nice to get out and play because this will be our first show since December 19."
Atkins arrives in Tulsa this week for a special show at The Joint at Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Thursday night, Feb. 21. A limited number of seats are still available as of press time with prices ranging from $25 to $40.
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