For many country fans these days, every dime counts — and Rodney Atkins is fully aware of that fact.
“You have to give people their money’s worth so that you’re not wasting their time,” he says. “Whether you’re releasing a single to make them laugh or to forget something bad going on, or to stand up there with them and lift them up, I think that everything about what I do is supposed to be not wasting people’s time. You know, give them their money’s worth. Now more than ever, it’s an honor. It’s not lost on me. It’s just cool to have shows where there are kids, grandparents, parents and teenagers coming out to a show, and they all can relate to what you’re singing about.”
In this interview, the native Tennessean talks about his new album, It’s America, keeping a sense of humor in his music, comparing life to a ruler and shooting guns with his wife.
CMT: What can your fans expect from the new album?
Atkins: This album, It’s America, is not a stretch from what we did in If You’re Going Through Hell. I believe you should dance with the one that brought you. We pushed the envelope some. I think sonically it’s a much better album, and I think we learned a lot in making If You’re Going Through Hell. We pushed the envelope groove-wise. There are some pretty funny songs in there. It never hurts to make folks laugh. … I think I was more comfortable singing about the things that really I always wanted to sing about. You really try to stick your flag in your territory. You’re not trying to trick folks.
What do you consider your territory?
There’s a sense of humor in it, like the songs on If You’re Going Through Hell, like “Watching You.” I remember the first time I played that song for my wife. She laughed about the chicken nuggets and four-letter word. The next verse is about how we like fixing things and holding mama’s hand, and she had a tear in her eye. … It’s about the simple things in my life that I really appreciate, what I think a lot folks appreciate and why you work so hard is for those simple things. I think that’s what draws people in.
I think the video for “Watching You,” with your son, introduced you as a dad. Was that the point where fans started to recognize you?
I think so, yeah. Elijah became more known. We were in some places where people would recognize him first — “Hey, it’s the buckaroo kid!” Then they’d see me in a ball cap — “Oh, wow, that’s his dad!” That was when I think the music connected. It started fitting together and making sense after “If You’re Going Through Hell” was out. Then we had “Watching You” and kids as a different audience were drawn to it.
Looking back, I think the single selection made a big difference in getting connected. It’s a pretty wide scope of who listens to country music. In a lot of formats, it’s going to be a younger age group that listens to one type of music or an older age group. Country music really reaches across the whole country and around the world. Like “If You’re Going Through Hell,” I think anyone who’s human can relate to that song. With “Watching You,” it’s for parents or grandparents with kids who are little listeners, like little sponges. “These Are My People” probably hit the whole demographic of country listeners. I didn’t think about it at the time, but they all kind of helped connect the dots to build familiarity.
“Cleaning My Gun” is like a funny joke that is true. That could have been really just a dumb redneck kind of song, but the songwriters — Casey Beathard and Marla Cannon — took a very intelligent approach to that idea. You know, dad’s out there joking — “I’ll be cleaning my gun when my daughter goes out there on her date.” They took the intelligent approach about it, with the speeches that you go through — the speeches that we really all should remember, but we don’t. They’re all very important things, but yet when it comes to your little girl, you’re going to remember that speech. My audience, I think, is intelligent rednecks, so that’s who I was singing to.
Since the last album, you’ve earned your college degree. Do you have any advice or perspective to offer to college kids?
Sure. Something that I always try to tell [stepdaughters] Lindsey and Morgan and Elijah — he’s just in first grade — is that if your whole life is a foot long, only about two inches of your whole life are in school. What you do in that time period can really affect the quality of the rest … the whole 10 inches left in your life. Between smart decisions and education, find something that you love to do, that you lose track of time when you’re doing it, and it can positively affect other people’s lives.
When you have downtime, who do you hang out with?
Family. We could do anything at all. Those are still the best days of my life when we spend time together. Just last weekend, we went out and my wife got a new 9 mm [rifle], so she went out shooting. Then we rode some horses and had a blast together. That’s fun.
What are you looking forward to the most this year?
Like every year, you kind of reach the place where every day is another step to become the person you’re supposed to be. Just focusing on family and friends and what you love to do — playing music. Just forging ahead. Right now, I’m excited about the summer when school’s out, so Elijah and my wife can come out on the road all the time.