Third Day's Mac Powell Makes Hard Country Turn

While they were on tour behind 1987's The Joshua Tree, U2 -- either homesick and looking for fun, bored or legitimately curious to see if the people who showed up that early would recognize them -- booked themselves as their own opening act on the Los Angeles, Indianapolis and Hampton, Va. stops under the guise of The Dalton Brothers.

Claiming to be from Galveston, the four Irishmen donned cowboy garb and exaggerated twangs to do a short set of "both kinds of music, country and western" -- originals ("Lucille") and covers such as Hank Williams' "Lost Highway" alike. Of course it was a gag, and even kind of a funny one, but at its heart was U2's sincere (if a little oversincere) interest in American roots music evident in Joshua Tree songs like "Red Hill Mining Town " and "Running to Stand Still."

Country music also struck a chord with Third Day singer Mac Powell. In about 20 years, his Atlanta-based group -- whose music combines the epic guitar sweep of U2 or Pearl Jam with muscular Southern roots-rock -- has sold more than seven million albums, won four Grammys and numerous Dove Awards, and become one of rock's biggest draws on the road (Christian or otherwise).

When the Alabama-raised Powell finished with the promotional duties surrounding Third Day's thirteenth album, 2010's Move, he finally had a chance to do something he'd been wanting to do for years: His own solo country record, the brand-new and self-released Mac Powell. Like one of its songs says, "This Ain't No Hobby" -- this is damn good modern rock-country, with guitars cranked up all the way like a Jason Aldean record but lacking the forehead-smacking lyrics that plague the songs of Powell's fellow Georgian.

Sirius XM's new-country channel The Highway (Sirius XM 59) has already gone and added single "One Mississippi," which never happens for a song on an independent, self-released album. "Finally, we got to a place where I couldn't not do it, Powell told Rocks Off over the phone last week while in a car bound for New York City. His solo tour behind Mac Powell pulls into House of Blues Wednesday night.

Rocks Off: Were the other guys in Third Day pretty understanding about your wanting to do this record?

Mac Powell: Yeah. I think at first, they were a little scared. But when I really confirmed with them, "Look, this is not the end of Third Day, this is just something that I have always wanted to do but not something I feel like would benefit for the band to do itself.

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I think once I explained that to them and confirmed to them that I'm going to keep being the lead singer of Third Day, that eased their minds somewhat. They've been very supportive. We've been together for 20 years and so as brothers, as friends, it's always good to have encouraging people around you to help.

It's been a fun process, and we're looking forward to getting the music out to more people. [Third Day's next album is scheduled for next spring, with Pearl Jam/Black Crowes producer Brendan O'Brien at the controls.]

RO: Are the rest of the guys in the band also country-music fans?

MP: I think one of the other guys is. Mark [guitarist Lee] kind of grew up like I did, listening to it with his parents, so for a while he was a songwriter in Nashville. He definitely did, and that's probably about it. I think everybody has an appreciation for it, you know, but doesn't necessarily listen to it all the time.

RO: What about your fans? Do you know that a lot of them are into country, or do you have any idea?

MP: I'm still trying to figure that out. I think there's definitely a lot of fans out there who like it. I've received a lot of tweets, and then from just talking to people at the shows, a lot of them say, "Well, I don't really listen to country music. I didn't think that I liked it, but I listened to your record and loved it, so you definitely made me a fan of country music now."

I don't know what the percentage is. I definitely had some fans before that listened to it, and some fans that are now listening to it because of my record.

RO: I read that when you saw what Darius Rucker did, that helped you make the decision to make the country record. What about that helped inspire you to do this?

MP: Well, just for the very fact that here's a guy who has been in a rock band, you know, as long if not longer than I have, and then he goes and makes a great record, now two great records, and he's successful at it.

I don't know him personally, but it seems like he kind of finds that perfect balance of being able to do both things, and yet has given everything he has to be able to support his records and reach his fans. That was a really big thing for me, to see that it can be done.

RO: I hear quite a bit of Travis Tritt and Hank Jr. on the record [Powell chuckles]. Can a man of faith be an outlaw?

MP: Wasn't Johnny Cash?

RO: Good point. What kind of reaction have you seen from country radio so far?

MP: Honestly, it's an independent record, so I don't have a record company for my country stuff; the lable is all on the Christian side of things. So there hasn't been a lot of interaction with radio. Sirius XM has a country station, the main one is called The Highway - there's no radio promotions with it or anything like that, they just happened to hear the song ["One Mississippi"], somebody played it for them and they loved it.

I went over and visited them, and they're playing it several times a day now, which is great. That proves to me that when people hear it, they like it, and it's doing well on the radio. I just don't have a radio staff to promote it to radio. There's been some local guys in Atlanta who have heard it and love it, but that's the extent of it right now.

RO: I read that you're playing the Grand Ole Opry in a few weeks. Are you nervous about that?

MP (laughs): Well, I wasn't until you said something. I guess I am a little bit, but it's an excited nervousness. It's such a historic place and a historic event that's been going on for so many years, and has launched the careers of so many people.

I don't know; it's just cool to be part of something like that. In a way, it feels like validation of what I'm doing.

RO: How does it feel to be playing much smaller rooms again?

MP: It's fine. It's cool to be able to have that excitement I had when we first started out of just not knowing how many people are going to be there and what it's going to be like, and each venue is drastically different.

It's a lot of fun. It's definitely different playing with a band I've only done a handful of shows with, as opposed to my guys with Third Day that I've been with for 20 years. So it's different, but it's exciting.

7 p.m. Wednesday, October 3, at House of Blues, 1204 Caroline, www.hob.com/houston.

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