Can you name Rodney Atkins’ first single? No, it’s not “If You’re Going Through Hell.” It’s not even “Honesty (Write Me a List),” from 2003. Instead, “In a Heartbeat” spent precisely one week at No. 74 in 1997 on Billboard‘s country airplay chart, never to be heard from again.
A decade later, the Tennessee native is all over country radio with two No. 1 hits and a new single, “These Are My People.” Martina McBride handpicked him to open her spring tour. And now he’s nominated for top new male vocalist by the Academy of Country Music. (The awards take place May 15 in Las Vegas.) The inescapable “If You’re Going Through Hell” is also up for single and song of the year at the show.
A few hours after hearing the news, Atkins called to talk about his signature song, the power of music videos and why George Strait makes him nervous.
CMT: When you’re at an awards show, what do you think about when you’re in the audience watching?
Atkins: You know what I’ve thought many times? And now I’ll probably have to finally live that, is wondering what it’s like performing in front of all your heroes. I would say that would be the biggest shaking point. I’ve done enough TV that I don’t think about it anymore, but sitting there and having the guys who influenced you to the point of making you chase this — the guys whose music changed my life’s direction a long time ago to make me pursue this — to see them sitting out there is going to be pretty amazing. Hopefully the lights will be very blinding! (laughs)
Not to make you nervous, but they’ll put George Strait in the front row.
Yeah, exactly. That’s what I’m talking about. That’s what’ll getcha.
You’re nominated for top new artist, and after “If You’re Going Through Hell,” a lot of people think of you as a new artist. But do you ever feel like you have to mention that you’ve had several singles out before this?
I kind of just let it go. (laughs) The thing is, it takes most people 10 years in town, and the ones that it doesn’t take 10 years are the ones you never hear from again. They have a hit and then they don’t know how hard it is to get there. I think (paying dues) makes you really grateful for everything and every time you play and every time you’re playing in a sold-out club or venue.
How long did you listen to “Going Through Hell” before you decided to cut it?
Oh, it was the first time. I remember my producer, Ted Hewitt, brought it into my manager’s office. We went back into the little room where we listen and he said, “I think I got one, man. I think I got a good song.” I listened to it and said, “That’s it. Let’s cut it as soon as possible.” We built a session around that. The amazing thing is, we cut seven songs that day, and four or five wound up sticking on the album. That was a pretty big session for all those songs to stick like that. So, “immediately” would be the answer.
Ten years ago, did you expect it would take so long, or that it might never happen?
That is a great question. Yeah, over the course of 10 years, there are many times when you go, “Is this going to come down?” And you think that at some point you’re going to have some songs out there, like we have with “Honesty,” but to have “If You’re Going Through Hell” be four weeks at No. 1 and “Watching You” for five and the ACM nomination. All that stuff, just pow, pow, pow. You have no idea what that feeling is like until that really happens. Did I ever say, “This is never going to happen”? No, I never really said I was going to quit. I never thought, “OK, I’m giving this up.” I just kept thinking, “OK, what can I do today to get closer to that goal?”
In addition to the ACMs, what are you looking forward to in the coming months?
Just hitting the road. I’m working on this new album, and it’s a really busy, really focused time to be on the road, playing like crazy. I was doing vocals for my next album this morning. I am right smack dab in the middle of the dream. We’re talking now about how you take the shows to the next level. That’s the goal also. And there is great stuff that keeps coming in. We’ve got some more touring announcements coming in the next few days that we’re really excited about.
How important was your video to getting these nominations?
I think for face recognition, it’s everything. I think it’s made a huge difference when you go and play a gig, and you’re recognized or not. People can know the song you sing, but nowadays they have to put a face with it. I think it was very important. It really made “Watching You” connect, to let people know that it came from a real place. Even though it’s not in the nominations stuff, it did become a No. 1 for five weeks and I think that had a lot to do with people seeing the video and knowing that it’s a real song about my real son. He’s in the video. I think it makes a big difference.
Did he [your son] get to share in the excitement of the nominations?
Yeah, he was asleep. He woke up in the middle of the night, so in the bed was my wife on one side, him in the middle and me on the other side. And so they were both crashed out there when I got the phone call.