Rodney Atkins knows the value of taking the long way home, of veering off the beaten path onto that road less traveled once in a while. You can hear it in his music, in the lyrics of his smash single, Take A Back Road, a song that celebrates that feeling of getting away from the noise of everyday life, really living in the moment, and getting right with your soul. And you can see it in the way he lives his life: putting family first, listening to that inner voice and remaining true to himself, and striving to evolve and find unique ways of expressing himself through the music he puts out into the world. It's a philosophy he tries to employ throughout his life, and it has led him to some amazing places.
"What does it mean to follow your own path? I try to think about that a lot when I'm making an album," explains Rodney, describing the journey he took in making his fourth album, Take A Back Road. "To me, it's going somewhere you've never been, because when you do that, you wind up seeing things that no one has seen before. Which means you can paint the picture differently."
The hardworking artist gathered up a whole new set of colors when he set about creating his latest masterpiece/fourth CD, Take A Back Road, and he cranked the whole recording process up a notch in intensity -- which is saying something for a guy who is pretty darned intense to begin with. But he wanted this project, his first in nearly three years, to convey and express some emotions and feelings in an authentic yet different way. Simply put -- Rodney had a lot to say musically, and he wanted to say it in exactly the right way.
The East Tennessee native has an impressive track record with hitting on sentiments that strike a chord with the country listener: he's had six number one hits from his first three albums, from "Watching You" and "These Are My People" to his most recent smashes, "Take A Back Road," and "Farmer's Daughter," (which quickly skyrocketed to platinum,) and he's sold over four million singles in the past five years alone. His lead single and title track, "Take A Back Road" has propelled him to even bigger heights with its irresistibly catchy chorus and easygoing, windows-down, breezy summer vibe. The tune is near platinum status just weeks after its release, but interestingly enough, Rodney wasn't sure how it would be received when he first decided to record the song, penned by Rhett Akins and Luke Laird. "Farmers Daughter' was one of the craziest download songs we had," recalls Rodney. "It was peaking at 15-16,000 a week, and now "Back Road" is knocking on 40,000 a week. And we haven't done a lot of press on that song either. So that was validation for me to follow my heart. Because when I got it, I was afraid to play the song for the people at the label, because I thought, "they're gonna think I'm crazy" because of what it was. It's pretty different. I knew before I could play it, my picture of where I wanted it to go had to be done.
"It's one of those songs that the first time I heard it I thought, "Boy, that feels good." And then it's catchy, and something you want to just crank up, but then, the more you hear it, you realize it's not just a ditty it's about life. If you want it to be just summer ear candy, it can just be that, but also it's about getting right with your soul, coming down to earth."
To capture just the right vibe for his new CD, Take A Back Road, Rodney teamed up once again with producer Ted Hewitt, who co-produced both the platinum "If You're Going Through Hell," (which featured the title track smash and 2006's most-played song of the year) and "It's America." The two spent hours in Rodney's home studio painstakingly crafting each vocal and track, with Rodney paying attention to every minute detail on song after song. It's a process he cherishes almost as much as being onstage, and one he takes extremely seriously.
"In the studio I'm always flying stuff around, messing around with Pro Tools, moving stuff around, and my co-producer Ted, he really gets this stuff. I'm very much a thinker. Now you call it A.D.D. I'm hyper-focused. It's hard to find the kind of songs that will really set you apart, though. I think that's the biggest challenge. That's the ultimate goal. And Ted and I have talked about the accountability for the music and what works, and what doesn't. You have to figure out what it is you came here to say, and stick to that, and not forget that. I think you live and learn. I have to record songs that won't just be around for a little while. And you want to have something that people relate to - you don't want to be thinking about listening to a song, you want to be inside of it. It's like watching a movie."
The songs on Take A Back Road are undeniably relatable --- from the sweetly honest battling couple who've drawn the lines down the middle of the bed in "Feet," to the fiercely parental pride-even-through-the-tough-times in "He's Mine," the tunes are chock full of emotions that any couple or family in modern-day America could identify with and find themselves experiencing, and for Rodney, that real emotion is what he strives for in each and every note.
"I've had some success with my songs, and you've got to sit back and ask yourself, why did these songs connect? With a lot of songs, the approach is about how perfect things are, or how messed up things are it's one or the other. But for me, real life is there are ups and downs, and if you can, get both sides of that in a song." Rodney also covers some new ground musically on the project with several tender love songs. Reluctant in the past to record them because many tend to express the same sentiments in the same predictable way, he found several songs for this record that capture the romance between a woman and a man in a unique, genuine way, without the shellacking or sugar-coating. Tunes like "She's A Girl," about the mystery and power a female can wield over a male, and "Cabin In The Woods," about the beauty of stealing away to a remote place, approach the age-old subject in ways he could not only relate to, but felt fans would gravitate to as well.
"I've never recorded love songs before. My love songs have been "These Are My People" and "Watching You" and "Cleaning This Gun." Or "Farmer's Daughter" that's sort of a "Going Through Hell" love song. But I've never gone down that road, because I wanted to find or write the type of song that was about something you can relate to that really moves you. Not something that you just hear and say, "Oh that's neat, or that's pretty or that sounds good." But something I can really relate to. It's a different approach than you've heard in a long time. Love is not all blue skies and no bills ...it's gutters leaking and the cat messed in the fireplace. It's not convenient at all, and you've got to make time for it that's the toughest part of it.
"There's also a tune "He's Mine" about a father and son that is sort of a love song as well. My boy Elijah, he's nine, and I started thinking about my teenage years and what I put my parents through, and what he's gonna be like. And you start thinking, Well it doesn't matter...I'm gonna be there for him, and I'm gonna try my best,' and it's unconditional and that's one of the most diverse songs - its "Watching You" the teenage years, but completely different."
Although he can be soft-spoken and serious, Rodney demonstrates his appreciation for the funnier side of life as well through tunes like the warm and witty, "Family," about a quirky clan of characters gathered at a family reunion, and the laugh-out-loud "She'd Rather Fight." The CD definitely features glimpses into Rodney's wild side, a side most often seen onstage during his energetic live shows, where he jokes he "lets his shadow come out to play." And he took pains to ensure he captured that raw, live energy this time around on the new CD, feeling he had lost a bit of that spontaneity on his last CD. "This album is different in that it's got more edge on it; it's got a lot more dive-bombs. With a smaller band, songs like "Back Road" feel like it's right up in your face and not affected. It's a more soulful album..."It's America" didn't talk enough about the real world; it lost some grit for me. Grit to me is sometimes just being honest. And sometimes you just want to cut loose and have fun, and you have to do something unexpected...you just have to kind of roll with it. That's how I try to be onstage, and the shows get better the more spontaneous they are, the less the band knows what's going to happen. I like not knowing exactly what's going to happen. But typically, I always know where I'm going. I'm not saying I always know how I'm gonna get there. But as long as I know where I'm going, I'm good. I like to just be in the moment, to focus on the power of now -- this album felt that way for me. I'm low-key, but I get excited on stage. I think if I didn't have the outlet of playing live, I'd be frustrated a lot. Music was definitely my savior. It's a way of saying things that, hopefully, because it's in the form of music, will stay around awhile."
Though his new crop of songs has some edge, and the vocal energy may be amped up a notch, Rodney is still the same, hard-working, patriotic, rock-solid country boy that fans have grown to know and love since his debut with 2003's Honesty. He still relishes the time spent with wife Tammy Jo and his son Elijah, and still serves as the spokesperson for brands like Massey Ferguson and the National Council for Adoption, a cause dear to his heart as a child of adoption himself. Rodney volunteers for the council on a large scale, but also makes plenty of time to return to the Holston Methodist Home for Children in Greenville, TN, where he was adopted as a small baby as well, for visits. After all, the road back to the tiny hometown where he got his start may be a long one, and a long way from the glitzy one he travels now as a country star, but for Rodney, nothing could ever beat the power of taking that back road and returning home to your roots.