Rodney Atkins Has a “Hell” of a Celebration

Singer Has Been Stoking the Fire for 10 Years

“Hell” smells like money.

Songwriters, songpluggers, music publishers, record promoters and virtually everyone else who makes a living in country music jammed into Nashville’s cavernous Judge Bean’s barbecue restaurant Monday (Sept. 18) to touch the hem of Rodney Atkins’ Levi’s as he celebrated his blockbuster hit, “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows).”

Even Miss Tennessee 2006, Blair Pancake, and Grand Ole Opry star Jack Greene dropped by to witness the tribal rites, during which enough plaques were handed out to stock a mid-size museum.

“If You’re Going Through Hell,” Atkins’ first No. 1 single in nine years on the charts, stayed in the top slot for four weeks. Its writers — Dave Berg and Sam and Annie Tate — were also on hand to share the glory.

Clad in jeans, a weathered brown T-shirt and a baseball cap with rolled-down brim, the tall, lanky Atkins was the lowest-keyed guy in the room, often standing deferentially to the side as the celebration roared on around him.

Atkins’ previous high-water mark on the chart was the No. 4 single, “Honesty (Write Me a List),” in 2003. It’s rare for an artist with such a thin chart history to attract such a large crowd, but the restaurant was so packed that late-coming revelers had to stand on the sidewalks.

Atkins told reporters before the party started that “Hell” demonstrated its appeal in his live shows long before it became a chart hit. He told of singing the song at a hospital that specialized in treating spinal injuries and watching some patients mouth the inspirational lyrics and weep. “You can’t get away from how big this song is,” he said later.

The East Tennessee native scoffed at how his earlier advisors had tried to “image” him by dressing him in a cowboy hat and leather pants for album photos. He noted that he was neither “Billy Currington-cute” nor a “leather guy.”

Among those joining the song’s publishers in presenting Atkins and the songwriters trophies were executives from the Country Music Association., Country Radio Broadcasters and ASCAP and SESAC (the performing rights organizations to which the three songwriters belong). A representative from Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen’s office told the honorees, “[The governor] really admires what you guys do to promote Nashville and Tennessee to the world.”

Frank Liddell, head of Carnival Music, one of the song’s publishers, paid a rather tortured tribute to Ted Hewitt, Atkins’ co-producer, noting, “I won’t say [he's] a no-name producer but a producer who’s not a household name, and [he] came out and did what may be the biggest record of the year.” After navigating that minefield, Liddell declared, “I’m going to hand out some plaques and then go kiss [Atkins'] ass so he’ll cut some of our songs on his next album.”

Daniel Hill of Cal IV Entertainment, the song’s other publisher, confessed that the plaques he’d ordered for the occasion hadn’t arrived. As a fallback, he passed out what appeared to be cheap bowling trophies.

“The first time we heard [Atkins] sing, we said he was going to be the next Roy Orbison,” recalled Mike Curb, owner of Atkins’ label, Curb Records. Instead, he continued, Atkins went on to find his own vocal style. “Those early records — the ones he made 10 years ago — were great records,” Curb added.

Berg thanked his mom and dad for flying in from Oregon to help him celebrate and singled out his much-awarded fellow songwriter, Pat Bunch, for helping him get started in the business.

Sam Tate said he went into songwriting to connect with people. “Rodney took our song and touched a whole lot of people with it,” he observed. Annie Tate added, “No one heard this song except Rodney and Ted. Nobody wanted this song before Rodney and Ted.”