Lewis smiles and says, “Heaven.”
It has been a pretty legendary end of summer 2016 for the Staind front man. He just completed a run of shows with Nelson in Canada and the Northeast. In July, he joined the Oregon Jamboree to cover a headlining void left by the late Merle Haggard. Ben and Noel Haggard were also there with the Hag’s band, the Strangers, to pay tribute to their late father and bandmate.
For our CMT.com interview, Lewis is sitting pretty in a recording studio off Music Row wearing a fresh pearl snap shirt tucked into a pair of belted jeans and a baseball cap from the Columbus, Ohio Division of Police Narcotics Bureau. On his feet? Some new cowboy boots he bought as a celebratory gift following Sinner’s No. 1 debut at iTunes.
Lewis has another reason to smile. Sinner just became his first No. 1 debut on Billboard Country Albums chart, selling 39,199 its first week out according to Nielsen Soundscan.
Featuring Nelson on the opening title track, the 11-song collection was recorded in a marathon 16 hours with producer Buddy Cannon. It has Lewis offering an honest reflection of living with the mistakes he’s made.
Multi-Grammy winners Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski elevate his already powerful vocals on “Mama,” and performances by award-winning musicians Mickey Raphael and steel guitarist Paul Franklin can be heard throughout. Track two is his version Chris Stapleton’s oft-covered “Whiskey and You.” Already Tim McGraw, Julie Roberts and Texas artist Jason Eady have cut the song.
But he says recording a version of Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” with his daughter Zoe for the closer is among the top moments of his career.
“I think that’s the proudest moment I’ve had yet in this industry,” he says, “and I’ve had a lot of moments worthy of being proud of.”
CMT.com: I appreciate the honesty in your new album. But listening to the music, it seems like you’re hard on yourself. Is that true?
Lewis: My songs and my writing have always been my place to get it off my chest. It’s an outlet to not have to carry those things on my shoulders as much. The more you say something, the more you express something, the more you own something, the more it goes away. That’s where my writing as always come from. It’s a lot harder for me to write a happy song. It was quite the departure for me to on the last record, I wrote a song about taking my daughters to the beach for the weekend. And that was a lot harder for me to come up with than ripping my heart out on a piece of paper. For some strange reason and as crazy as it sounds, writing from a place of discontent is easier.
How does it help you empathize with your fans?
A lot of times it makes me sad to think that these feelings that I earned in life are felt by so many others. It makes me sad.
Chris Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You” has been recorded for albums by other artists a few times over the last decade. What is it about that song that makes it a new standard?
It’s an amazing song. I know it sounds a little cliché but the first time I heard that song I definitely drank too much whiskey. And the song knocked me on my ass to the point I just started playing it as a cover.
We were in the studio for a very short period of time. We got to the end of all the songs that I had prepared, and Buddy suggested that we record one more. So in the interest of time and efficiency, I had mentioned that I already knew the song because I had been covering it already. And so we called Chris and he was excited that I was going to cut it. Twenty minutes later, it was done.
What do you think it is about country music that makes it question its own authenticity every few years? Is it the same in rock music?
It’s like that in every genre. It’s totally cyclical. I think what happens is that people push the envelope of the genre and they push it and they push it and they push it and it gets to a point to where it’s almost unrecognizable to the music that defined the genre and then it all snaps round back again.
I saw it in rock happen right under my feet from the beginning of my career with Staind to the last record that we put out. The landscape had changed so drastically underneath our feet. It was almost unrecognizable. And you can see it in country music wherein the early ‘80s, in that time frame Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton really pushing that envelope and crossing over into pop music. That was really pushing the genre far from what the core was at that time. And the next thing you know, you have Randy Travis. You had George Strait and you have these artists that were bringing it back to center. I just I feel like we’re at that point again where it needs to come back to center.
What have you learned from the timing of everything?
I learned patience because I’ve had these songs in the bag and ready to record for years and I’ve been playing them out live for years. And what I usually do as I write the songs, I start playing them and it’s kind of a testing if you will to see how the crowd reacts to them.
You’re not worried about people discovering new music too early?
I mean, they’re going to anyways. I remember recording with Staind in NRG studios in North Hollywood. We were in Studio A and Linkin Park was in Studio B. And in order for me to go over there and hang out with my friends that had been on tour with, that I had been blackout partying with, I had to sign in and sign out with a security guy that was standing at the door. That’s how tight things were as far as allowing any sort of anything to get out there before the record came out.
With downloading, the Internet and the way everything is now, that’s just a silly concept unless you don’t want to go anywhere near the music that you’re about to record until after it’s recorded. I have a hard time writing a song that I feel is a good song and not immediately playing it to give the fans something new.
How does living with your demons bring out more feeling in your music?
I own the fact that I’m not perfect. I own the fact that I’m a human being and that I’m flawed. And I’ve never tried to put forward anything other than that. I’ve found that going back to the Staind songs, it seemed the way they were written I was speaking to somebody else. It’s taken a while to go back and listen to the lyrics and realize, you really weren’t talking about anybody else. You were talking to yourself. I think they were conversations in the mirror. I’ve had lots of conversations in mirrors in songs.
What is your biggest takeaway from touring with Willie? Something you’ll have for the rest of your life?
We were standing in front of his bus to take a picture. Right before we took the picture, his comment was, “Never buy a used car from these guys.” He was referring to me and him taking the picture together because that’s all we really are is glamorized car salesman. We’re traveling salesmen. We show up. We have merch. We have music that we’re promoting. We provide a show. We’re just traveling salesmen. That’s all we really are.
But the product you’re selling is there for people in times when they need it most.
Sure. And I’m not taking that away. I’m just simplifying things to a very simple degree.
On tour through next year, Lewis plays the Route 91 Harvest Festival on Saturday (Oct. 1). Sinner is available now.