Modern mainstream country music has been a safe haven for artists from other genres to lucratively cross over into for many years now. And it’s always humorous to see traditional country-loving elitists get all worked up over the perceived intrusions. Whether it’s Darius Rucker, Jon Bon Jovi or Steven Tyler, questions about so-called “country cred” are raised, even though “country cred” and Top 40 country radio have nothing to do with one another and haven’t for many years.
Aaron Lewis, lead singer and songwriter for multiplatinum hard-rock act Staind, isn’t new to such interrogations. He released his first solo country effort back in 2011 with Town Line. In 2012 he released The Road, and just a couple of weeks ago his new album, Sinner, claimed the No. 1 spot on Billboard’s Country Albums chart. The first two records offered mixed results, but Lewis has hit his stride with this latest cohesive collection as Sinner is a fine record and unquestionably Lewis’s most hardcore country effort so far.
In recent interviews and even onstage, the Massachusetts-raised Lewis, a self-proclaimed “Northern Redneck,” has been quite vocal about the watered-down nature of commercial country these days. As an outsider, he isn’t afraid to throw shade in Luke Bryan’s direction or to record in unorthodox ways that most Nashville artists would likely never dream of. Some of it may be for show, but he backs it all up in songs, especially ones such as pedal steel-enriched lead-single “That Ain't Country,” which are firmly rooted in an old-school country style.
This weekend, Lewis performs at the annual Ziegenbock Music Festival with Cody Johnson, Josh Abbott Band and many other artists. He’s an outlier in geographical terms with the rest of the massive bill, but his new songs will make him right at home.
Houston Press: The festival you’re playing in Houston is mainly made up of Texas country artists. Are you familiar with the Texas country scene at all?
Aaron Lewis: I’m familiar with some of it, but I can’t say I know that much about it. I like that there are so many traditionally minded artists in Texas and I like it when I see some of them break out in other areas. I’ve seen Cody Johnson play and I’m familiar with Josh Abbott and some of the others. I freaking love Jack Ingram because he’s such a talented writer, but a lot of it's new to me.
You’ve released two full-length records and an EP. It seems as though there’s been a progression in terms of each record sounding more and more traditionally country. Has that been a focus for you since you started to record country music?
There’s certainly been a progression in how the records sound, but more so in how I’ve recorded them. The EP took the longest to record, actually; The Road took 32 hours to record, and this new one took only 16 hours for the whole record. Everything was done in one or two takes, and I never went back to fix vocals or anything like that. It’s as raw and real as it could be.
On this album you have loud and raucous songs but also some really tender moments. Does country music give you a chance to cover more emotional terrain than you have with hard rock?
I’ve been excited and intrigued by covering that kind of ground and having a full spectrum of songs to play in that way. When I was in the studio, I wanted to put my best all-around representation forward. But back to the way I recorded it, I didn’t want the record to be some creation where it was put together like a big puzzle in the studio by a bunch of different people at different times. We did that kind of thing with Staind, where we would take a month to record drum parts so the producer would have a bunch of options for him to create the perfect take. I didn’t want that here. I wanted it to be what it really is.
You picked a couple of intriguing covers with “Traveling Soldier,” which is mainly performed by your teenage daughter Zoe, and “Whiskey and You.” Since you write almost all of your own stuff, what made you pick these songs?
“Traveling Soldier” is such a great song, and it would’ve been a much bigger hit had it been released earlier than it was before the Dixie Chicks made those comments about George Bush. It’s like it just vanished one day, but for me, I’ve heard my daughter sing that song around the house hundreds of times. I wanted to make a memory with her that no one could ever take away, and it’s absolutely my proudest moment as a man and a father.
And what about Chris Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You”? It’s a gut-punch of a song, but it’s also been covered a good bit.
The first time I heard it, I had just actually consumed the better part of a fifth of whiskey, so you want to talk about a real gut-punch? It leveled me at that moment, and that’s why I’ve always felt okay with recording it. I’m usually really protective and guarded when it comes to what I sing. I wrote pretty much everything in the Staind catalog, and those songs are all broken pieces of me. And my country songs are no different, so for me to record someone else’s song, it has to hit me like it’s one of those broken pieces of me.
In “Northern Redneck,” you get really specific with certain clichés about country life and even the kind of boots you wear. Are you really bugged by people not thinking that rednecks only live in the South?
That’s funny, because I wrote that song in an almost tongue-in-cheek manner. There is a reason I used the country clichés that are in pretty much every modern country song. I think my sense of humor gets missed sometimes because some of the most critical words I’ve read about the record have been towards that song and its use of so many clichés. I really did that on purpose because people look at me as an interloper, but in reality, many of the redneck clichés apply to my life even though I’m from the North.
One thing you don’t see many country artists doing is performing at UFC fights when the fighters walk out. Of all of the places you’ve played, that had to be one of the stranger gigs, right?
Man, that was a crazy night! Chad Mendes is a fan and had already been using “Country Boy” as the song he walked out to for a while. The whole thing was really cool and daunting as hell. He was fighting Conor McGregor, so there were Irishmen all around me. It was like a third of Ireland was at that fight, and the booing for Mendes was deafening when he was walking out of the tunnel underneath where I was playing the song. I was surrounded by undercover police officers so the crazy fans couldn’t get to me. And as I’m singing, I kept telling myself, "They’re not booing me; they’re booing him." As an artist, it’s weird getting booed, so it was a brutal gig, but it was really cool.