Rodney Atkins comes full circle in music and life

He had walked those halls before, but on a sunny afternoon back in August, it was all different.

He wasn't a resident, nor was he just a donor. His name was on the sign out front, and for Rodney Atkins, such an accolade meant more than all of the No. 1 hits he's ever had.

For Atkins, who was adopted from the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville, having it known as the Rodney Atkins Youth Home is more than a footnote to his continuing successful career -- it's a mile marker in a successful life that had very humble beginnings.

"For them to put my name on the building -- it's just a huge honor," Atkins told The Daily Times during a recent phone interview. "Charles Hutchins, the fellow who's so involved (Hutchins is the home's director) -- he's the guy who took care of me when I was an infant and he and his wife wound up finding a home for me -- he said I'm his poster boy for Holston Home. It's an honor to me for him to look at what I'm doing and think that it's worthwhile."

If ever there was a "small-town boy makes good" story in country music, Atkins is it. Born in Knoxville, adopted in Greeneville and raised in Cumberland Gap, he spent his childhood like a lot of Southern boys -- doing chores, playing ball and hanging out with friends. In high school, he gravitated toward music, learning to play guitar and performing at country fairs, festivals and shopping malls.

After high school, he attended Walters State Community College in Morristown and, later, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville. With Nashville only an hour away, he started playing more gigs in Music City, writing more songs and earning a reputation as a rugged-voiced singer who wrote pretty good songs. He was signed to Curb Records, and his debut album, "Honesty," produced a top 5 hit (the title track) in 2003.

However, when he sat down to make a follow-up, he decided to do it from home. He and his wife, Tammy Jo, had settled near Cookeville, and his home studio became the backdrop for the creation of "If You're Going Through Hell." Little did he know he had a breakout hit on his hands -- the album has been certified platinum, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Albums chart and produced four No. 1 singles -- the title track, "Watching You," "Cleaning This Gun (Come On In, Boy)" and "These Are My People."

Late last year, the title track to Atkins' new album, "It's America," was released and became his fifth No. 1 single. The CD itself came out in March, peaking at No. 3 on Billboard's country albums charts and spawning another hit, "15 Minutes," that peaked at No. 20. He and his team, he said, are working on plans for the next single, and he's excited about returning to East Tennessee to perform on Sunday night, Oct. 18, in downtown Maryville, where he'll close out the Foothills Fall Festival.

"It's almost like a full-circle moment for me to get to play that festival," he said. "When it first started, all of my friends and family were saying, 'You need to play this festival in Maryville,' and I said, 'Maybe some day.'"

Like his previous two records, there's a distinct optimism to Atkins' music on "It's America." It's not shiny, happy pop, but it's certainly not dark and depressing, either. He's caught some flack for that in the past, but when it comes down to it, Atkins said, he doesn't really know any other way to be.

"I made the mistake of reading a review, and the only critique the person could come up with is saying, 'This guy's been through some tough times; why doesn't he sing about that stuff? We want to hear about adversity,'" Atkins said. "The truth is, anybody who overcomes adversity doesn't want to focus on it. The whole purpose of a song like 'If You're Going Through Hell' is that it's pretty silly to wallow in despair, because that gets you nowhere.

"If you've got a goal in mind, work toward it. Sometimes you'll scratch your head and try to figure out how to get out of situations you may find yourself in, but at the end of the day, you've got to remember that you're human and you're going to make mistakes."

Unlike a lot of his more polished peers, Atkins is OK with being seen as just a regular guy. Sure, he's sold more than a million records, and he readily admits he perhaps could've sold more, if he took part in the corporate politics that are so prevalent in Nashville.

"I've just never been one to fall for hype, and I've never been good at self-promotion," he said. "When I do interviews, reporters usually end them by asking, 'Is there anything else you want to talk about?' And I'll say, 'No, not really' -- because I'm not good at that.

"The hype will get to you if you let it. It will get you a moment of glory for some folks to focus on, but I just don't believe I can get on the radio or sell records or have success as an artist with bad songs. I don't think I can put a song out that people are going to listen to and forget about, because those aren't really hits.

"There are songs that go up the charts and come back down and two weeks later, people forget about them and can't even sing them to you," he added. "I want to put out songs that make people pump their fists. That's the goal."

That, and making sure his children -- son Elijah and two step-daughters -- see a good example. The latter, more than anything, is more important to him than anything else, he said. He's been involved in the Holston Home since first finding success, and his activism has inspired others in Nashville to follow his example -- the Academy of Country Music has made donations to provide the children there with musical instruments, he added.

"That's the most gratifying part -- when people around you see what's important to you and knowing that you have the support from folks all over and invest in it with you," he said. "It's amazing, and it's important for me. My kid sees me on stage and playing, but the most important thing for him is knowing that we're investing in community.

"People ask me what's the one thing about being a parent that I can tell them, and I think it's about being present in life. We've had to adjust here at the house because my schedule is crazy and I'm always out on the road, but when I'm there and in the moment, I completely give myself to him, whether I'm teaching him to field a grounder or say a prayer before we eat.

"You really have to own the moment you're in," he added. "You have to just be there, and give it all for every note."

Family, community, country -- these are essential ingredients in country songs that touch the heart. They're also essential to Rodney Atkins' life ... which explains his success in country music. Sunday (Oct. 18), he comes to downtown Maryville for the Foothills Fall Festival.

If You Go
Rodney Atkins performs at 8 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 18 at the Foothills Fall Festival, Theater in the Park in downtown Maryville.

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