All this week, we’re profiling the acts nominated for this year’s USA WEEKEND Breakthrough Video of the Year honor at the CMT Music Awards, airing live from Nashville June 8. Today, we’re starting with Aaron Lewis, an interesting nominee for a breakthrough award since he’s been part of the national music scene since 1995 as frontman for the rock group Staind. However, Lewis isn’t taking his nod for the biographical song Country Boy (off his solo country record Town Line, released in March) for granted. “Anytime you get nominated for something, it’s a pretty cool thing,” he says. “Having a career in rock for my entire career and for how this is all played out and gone down — releasing my first solo record and having it debut No. 1 on the country charts — it’s pretty huge.” And he’s doing it all back in his home state of Massachusetts, where he spends his time with family when not on tour. Lewis checked in from his place recently after wrapping up a new Staind album — he still plays countrified versions of the band’s hits such as Outside and It’s Been Awhile in his solo sets, Lewis says. “Every one of those songs lends itself to a country application quite nicely.” We talked recently about his nominated song and how his country career has been going so far, so read below for our conversation. Also, check out the video for Country Boy (which is up for Collaborative Video of the Year as well) and if you dig it, or any of the other nominees, be sure to vote at CMT.com.
The video seems like a very personal project for you.
It was a very personal video. I felt that it needed to be in order for it to paint the proper picture. The song is very personal — every single thing I say in the song is true to my life and true to me growing up. I felt the video needed to be the same. We did it all right here at my house, the dirt road I’m sitting on in the video is the dirt road that runs in front of my house, and the woods I was sitting in is the woods right down behind my animal barn. The gun that I was carrying, it was because there was a huge bear right there at my barn. Not three days before that, my wife turned the corner and was standing face to face with it not 20 feet away. That video is as real as it gets.
And you included country icons George Jones and Charlie Daniels.
That was the biggest deal out of the whole thing, to have two of the legends of country music that I grew up inadvertently listening to because my grandfather had country on constantly. Country music is really the soundtrack to my childhood.
Did that happen for other kids around you? I would imagine country music isn’t as big in New England as in, say, the Midwest.
You’d be surprised. Up here, it’s not all Boston. Most of up here is quite farm-like and rural. We just don’t have the same farming ability up here as they do down in the Midwest just because of weather. Our growing cycles are shorter. The Lewis farm in Danby, Vt., was one of the biggest dairy farms in the state at one time. There were two different barns going with probably 500 head of cattle in each barn milking. It was a big deal, and I spent summers with my grandfather. I live in a town of 1200 people. There are more farm animals here than there are people. It’s the only way I would have it.
You started with Staind in the mid-1990s. Do you feel like you would have written a much different version of Country Boy then than you did now?
I guess it probably would have come out about the same way except for all of the devil stuff, because I wouldn’t have dealt with all [the personal demons] yet.
When you decided to do a solo album, was country always the way it was leaning?
It was always definitely one of the options, just because I write on acoustic guitar. I tend to write subject matter that tugs at your heartstrings a little bit, and it’s very fitting for country. There were a couple different concepts that were kicking around at one point, and I finally realized and decided that this was the right fit for me.
What has your country experience been like so far?
It’s been very good. There’s that facet of the country world that feels like I’m a washed-up rock star who has no career left anymore and now I’m just pandering to country music listeners. But I would have to say that most of the country artists these days are probably the ones pandering to country music listeners because they don’t even write their own songs. I wrote Country Boy, and it’s 100% truth in every way, shape or form to my life. It applies to me, whereas a lot of these songs that are out there, they’re not true. They don’t apply to the artist that’s singing them. How am I pandering if I wrote the song myself instead of going to somebody and saying, “Hey, let me get one of your perfectly written country tunes to put out”? That’s the one thing that bothers me, the facet of people that think that I’m pandering and contrived and that this is all fake. I can assure you, I’m more country than most of the country artists out there — by life and by the way I live and what I choose to do in my free time.
Do you feel you’re getting more positive vibes since you released the album?
It’s gotten better in the sense that there are more appreciators out there than there are haters. On YouTube, Country Boy has 6.2 million views and 404 dislikes out of 6 million people. I’ll go with those odds.
Do you have an all-time favorite country video?
[Hank Williams Jr.’s] A Country Boy Can Survive is really the inspiration for Country Boy. I even make reference to it in the bridge where I say, “Hank taught me just how to stay alive, you’ll never catch me out of the house without my 9 or .45.” And then the final words to the bridge are, “As a country boy, I know I can survive.” There’s direct reference to Hank in there, and I tend to relate quite a bit to that song.
Was he your biggest inspiration on the country side?
George Jones, Merle Haggard, Junior, Waylon Jennings. Waylon was in a similar situation as me, where he started off in a rock band with Buddy Holly. And he became one of the biggest country artists of his time.
How did you fit in a new Staind record with your solo touring schedule?
I had been going and playing these shows on the weekend, and coming home on a Sunday night and getting up Monday morning with the kids and bringing them to school and heading to the studio around noon and working all day and coming down and having dinner with the kids and go back to up the studio and work till 2 or 3 in the morning. It was quite the schedule to uphold, but we successfully did it and the record is done. It’ll be coming out soon.
Is there a song on the album that you can’t wait for old-school fans to hear?
Well, the whole record’s heavy and awesome. There’s one song, Something to Remind You, that I have been playing that is probably the least representative of what the whole rest of the record is. It’s not acoustic guitar-based, but it’s clean and quiet and pretty and more on the lines of something I would have written on my acoustic guitar.
Do you feel your solo album helped in any way when you came back to writing for Staind?
Yeah, it gives me another outlet, an avenue, a place to go with my more mellow songs that have blurred the lines of Staind. Over the years, the songs like Outside and It’s Been Awhile and So Far Away and Everything Changes and Epihany and Zoe Jane, those are all songs I sat on my couch, by myself, and wrote on my acoustic guitar. If I was where I was at at this point, those songs all would have gone to this project and not to Staind, and it wouldn’t have blurred the lines and confused everything the way it has over the years. If you listen to those records those songs are on, the rest of the record is heavy and not at all a representation of what those songs were. Having heard the songs that were on the radio, people have come and seen us play and been completely mortified by how heavy the live set is vs. the songs that get played on the radio. [Laughs] That won’t really happen anymore.