In anticipation of the release of Atkins third album, 'It's America,' The Boot spoke to the perpetually laid-back singer, who told us that in preparation for the new album, he actually had to re-learn how to breathe. He also revealed that when it comes to writing and recording, he often seeks the sage advice of a close confidante with a first-grade education. It's fitting that our conversation with Atkins took place from his home about 90 minutes outside Nashville, since it's not just his home, it's also where he did most of the recording of the new album.
What made you decide to do so much of your recording at home?It started out as a matter of keeping the cost down. The 'Honesty' album [released in 2003] didn't sell a whole lot of copies, so I didn't know if I was going to get to make another album. But this was an inexpensive way to do that. I started doing some demos and got online and bought a refurbished laptop, bought a microphone off of eBay. A lot of folks said you can't really do it that way at a pro level, but I did some vocals that way, turned it into the label and they said, 'Wow, where did you record this? The vocals sound great!' So I told them, and they said keep doing it that way. I did the whole 'If You're Going Through Hell' album that way. When it came time to do this album, I didn't want to change anything.
What's the best thing about working from home?You're not on the clock, and you're more connected to [the work]. You're not just showing up as the artist, singing the songs and then leaving again. You're part of being a producer in every aspect of the song, every guitar lick, the mixing and all that. Some of the songs, I kept messing with them, trying to figure out what's missing to make exactly what it needs to be. With a new song, I can get in here because I'm off the clock and I'll just sing 'em over and over and get to know 'em and try stuff. But there is a time to just walk away and say, OK, I think this is right.
Do you get much input from your family?My wife grew up loving country music, so I always run songs by her whether I wrote it or if somebody pitched it to me. [My son] Elijah is seven. He's in the first grade. We can be goofing off out in the woods or something and I'll start singing. Like the song 'Simple Things' came from him and me being out playing in the creek. I started singing and he said, 'That ought to be a song, Daddy. You should write that.' Then with Lindsey and Morgan, my two stepdaughters, they'll give me their opinion of what songs they like and what their favorite songs are. They have good taste!
Listen to 'It's America'
Was your writing process for this record any different from previous albums?I just tried to stay focused on the stuff I knew about, writing songs about my life and things that I relate to every day. And people, because they heard the 'If You're Going Through Hell' album, they knew more about the songs I wanted to sing, so we got pitched those kind of songs. There are a couple of songs on here that I couldn't believe they knew that much about me to write a song like that, like 'Tell a Country Boy' [the first track on 'It's America'].
That's got to be something of a balancing act, too -- to stay true to yourself but to also offer fans something new each time.
We pushed the envelope groove-wise on some of the songs and tried some different things lyrically a little bit, but it's still pretty consistent with what we did before. That's part of being an artist. You don't try to trick people, but you occasionally might color outside the norm of what you do. But this is the territory I sing about and this is what people expect. My family and I are just regular folks, just trying to get through the day and do the best you can and pay the bills, and that's who were singing to.
What three words first come to mind when you think of the word 'America'?Proud, family and together. When I first heard 'It's America,' it was at the time when the all the economy stuff was coming down. Soldiers were going to Iraq and Afghanistan, and all the election stuff was going on. I would turn on the TV and they were all slamming each other. You get wore out on a lot of that stuff. So I heard this song and it reminded me of the things that are constant in this country, that make you proud to be an American and to know how lucky you are to get to raise your kids here. The first verse is about seeing a kid selling lemonade, but it could've been about seeing kids running through a sprinkler in the front yard. And there's a verse about communities helping neighbors out. It's not a political song at all. It's about how lucky we are and about the things that remain the same. It fired me up. It makes you want to pump your fist.
One track on the record that really stands out is 'Fifteen Minutes.' Great honky-tonk song!
Yeah, hopefully that'll make y'all's 'Best Drinking Songs' in the future! I love songs that are timeless. It's just a classic type of country song that makes you laugh and forget your troubles for a little while. One of the first times I played it, we were doing a show with Brad Paisley and he walked up to me backstage and said, 'Man, where did you get that song? That's awesome, I love that!' It's one of those songs like [Garth Brooks'] 'Friends in Low Places.' It's one of those hanging out with your buddies kind of songs. I've got buddies like that who just want to hang out, drink beer and tell jokes.
'The River Knows' is a song that tells a pretty inspiring story.
It was written by the same folks who wrote 'If You're Going Through Hell,' Annie Tate and Dave Berg. It's a song about the same feeling I get when I go out and go fishing and I'm outdoors in nature. This guy is going out to get reconnected and get grounded. So he gets out there and sees another guy right in the spot where he wants to go fishing and realizes that this guy is there for a bigger reason. He's been off defending the country and facing those things. I've heard folks say that you can really find God in nature. So the song is about just going out and finding peace of mind and healing, and going back to yourself.
What's the reaction been when you've played it live?We played it in D.C. not long ago, and we played it in Norfolk, Va., at a Navy Seal training facility. In DC, there were soldiers from Walter Reed [Hospital] that came to the show. So I was singing the song to these tough guys and girls with tears in their eyes. They related to it on a completely different level.
Another show you played recently was the homecoming concert for George W. Bush when he returned to Texas at the end of his presidency. What was that like?
It was a thrill to get to go and be a part of it. It was people who appreciated what he went through and what he did. Everyone was excited for him to get to come back to where he was from. Not many places can say that two presidents come from the same town. He was very gracious to invite us to come and be a part of it. He talked about his support of the new president coming into office and everybody cheered. They were just proud Americans.
What do you think Bush's legacy will be?I completely support our leaders and pray for them. We know that we're facing some tough times. This country goes through that from time to time. We all go through that as humans. I think as long as we all feel like we're in this together and working together and stay positive ... I'm not a political guy but I do support our leaders the best I can, and support the soldiers out there defending this country. You pray for them and know that they're making the best decisions that they can.
What are some of your goals for the rest of 2009?Obviously to write as much as possible and also take the show to the next level -- to do the greatest show we can out there. Before we went out this year, I went and found a vocal coach. I've never really focused on if I had good habits when I sang or if I had bad habits, or if I was breathing correctly. So, I started doing vocal exercises and would stretch out before I sang, stuff to help my breathing. It's funny, you breathe your whole life then you find out you're not doing it correctly. It's made a huge difference, and made it easier and even more fun to sing. But it starts right there with giving people a great show, making the vocals great. I really want to make it a great show so that when people walk away they'll know they got their money's worth.