Maybe you were one of the untold millions singing along to "It's Been Awhile," an introspective hard rock ballad released in 2001 by post-grunge rock group Staind. Or maybe you were one of the 14 million who bought Staind's records? Or caught the band on tour with Kid Rock, Limp Bizkit, or with Hootie & the Blowfish at the House of Blues - a venue to which Staind's songwriter/front man Aaron Lewis will return Friday. If so, you might be surprised to know that Lewis is now a full fledged country music star complete with a hit song "Country Boy," a hit CMT video of the same name, and a genre-bending career boost 16 years after first forming Staind in the rural landscape of Vermont.
We caught up with Lewis by phone recently who is on a two-man tour in support of "Town Line," an early 2011 solo release, Lewis' first, and one garnering plenty of attention. Lewis' will bring his Town Line show to the House of Blues in North Myrtle Beach (8 p.m. Friday) and it's a venue he knows well.
"I've been there so many times," recalled Lewis. "That's the place with the gator farm out front, right? Yeah, I've been there with [Staind] probably 10 times, I've played it acoustically, and with Hootie & The Blowfish for their golf event. I have a lot of history with that place."
While still relatively unusual, it's becoming less rare for pop and rock artists to cross over into the country music realm, especially with country music's wide demographic. Young and old country fans also tend to listen to multiple genres. Anecdotal observations will support that it's not that uncommon to find a 20 or 30 something who is a fan of the Zac Brown Band and Jay-Z. This is one of the theories used to explain Darius Rucker's (Hootie & the Blowfish) acceptance and transformation to superstar country status. That is to say that Hootie's fans were also already country music fans and Rucker, with an easily identifiable voice, was able to capitalize on the synergy. But how would the dark, heavy, moody music of Staind, delivered vocally by Lewis, find such a ready country music audience? And was his decision to go country one driven by the prospect of easy money? "Not at all," says Lewis.
"This was never a business decision - I wrote these ["Town Line"] songs from a [creative] place - about things that I was feeling. I really didn't take them too far from anything I've ever brought to the table with Staind. I wrote these songs in the same way I wrote [some of Staind's] songs - sitting on my couch with an acoustic guitar. The only thing that was different with this batch, was instead of taking them to my band, to get Staind's coloration, instead I brought them to some of the best session musicians in Nashville [Tenn.], and they put their two-cents in." Lewis' producers brought in country music legends George Jones and Charlie Daniels, along with rising country star Chris Young. "Chris is a cool guy. I'm sure we'll be friends for years, and having George and Charlie sing on ["Country Boy'] is probably the biggest thing that will ever happen to me in my career."
What about Staind?
"We have recorded and delivered our next [self-titled] Staind record. It gets released early-to-mid September and the first single ["Not Again"] is just out." Lewis will tour with Staind beginning in September and has invested five months into promoting "Town Line," finding an unlikely partner for the stripped down duo shows.
"I have one other guy with me - Ben Kitterman," said Lewis. "He originally drove my tour bus. I caught him one afternoon sitting in the front lounge of the bus playing the Dobro - the rest is history. He recorded the album with me, and he's the one musician I have on tour. It's funny; he's not a wannabe rock star. The thing he was most worried about was that he might lose his job at the bus company when this was all over. His father drove Neil Young's bus for 20-something years. Ben grew up around Neil Young's bus, and all he ever wanted to do is drive bus. The fact that he's a musical virtuoso on the piano, Dobro, pedal steel, cello, fiddle is secondary."
"Town Line" has gone beyond Lewis' expectations.
"Not only was "Town Line" my first solo record, but to have jumped genres and have it debut No. 1 on the country charts, that was far more than I could have expected. How [my first solo record] became country...? The first tour we went on with Kid Rock, [on his bus] all that was ever playing was that old country music that my grandfather used to listen to. From that point on I had a hard time getting away from it. 'Country Boy' is probably the most autobiographical song - people, places, experiences - that I've ever written. Staind's songs are all a piece of me, too. All I did to reinvent the wheel, was to change slightly how I approached writing the lyrics, and where I found them within myself."
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