Despite success, Rodney Atkins’s ball cap still fits
Rodney Atkins will bring his trademark ball cap, everyman manner and all-American songs about kids with lemonade stands, friends with tractors and daddies with precocious youngsters to Durant’s Choctaw Event Center tonight. "We try to just celebrate the simple things in life. We obviously try to have just a whole lot of energy and something that everybody can get into. ... It’s an opportunity for that sense of community, for everybody to have fun together,” Atkins said by phone this week from his home outside Nashville, Tenn. Despite five No. 1 hits, platinum album sales and industry awards, the country star still sees himself as "a very regular guy.” And he considers just being himself one of the secrets to his recent success. Atkins, 40, notched his first Top 5 hit in 2003 with the title track of his debut album, "Honesty.” But the cover featured an almost unrecognizable Atkins in a cowboy hat and pearl snap shirt. "The first photo shoot for me, talk about going through hell, they flew me out to somewhere I’d never been before and want you to be completely natural and be yourself. Get out there and they bring a hairstylist — hair dresser, I don’t know what you call ’em, hair person — and they’re gooing you up and doing all this stuff to ya. And they expect you to look comfortable,” he said. After "Honesty,” Curb Records gave Atkins the freedom to pick songs that fit him, and he changed management. For his breakout 2006 record, "If You’re Going Through Hell,” Atkins penned and looked for "anthems about being human,” recorded the vocals in his home studio and wore his usual outfit of jeans, T-shirt and ball cap for the cover shoot. Country fans loved the relatable Atkins, sending four straight songs from his sophomore album to No. 1. The title track, about coping with life’s hardships, was recognized by Billboard as the top country song for 2006, while "Watching You,” which he co-wrote from experiences with his son Elijah, was Billboard’s No. 1 country song of 2007. The title track of his 2009 album, "It’s America,” a tribute to lemonade stands, high school proms and one nation under God, also topped the country charts. "People ask me what songs I’m drawn to, and they’re songs about real life. It’s hard for me to write a song or be drawn to something that I can’t relate to on some level,” he said. "I think that the stuff that I sing about is for regular folks out there, and I think that’s helped a lot with the songs that we’ve had success with.” When it comes to songs he believes in, the Tennessee native has demonstrated a willingness to stick to his guns, quite literally. His label was uneasy about releasing the hit "Cleaning This Gun (Come on in Boy),” about a father facing his teen daughter’s suitor, but Atkins championed the single after seeing the response from fans. "There’s nothing like standing onstage singing ‘Watching You’ and seeing the kids starting singing along and seeing the parents pick up their kids and put ’em on their shoulders, or ‘Cleaning This Gun’ and (seeing) that daddy or that mama with their little girl out there,” he said. Penning and picking deeply personal songs has enabled Atkins to overcome the intense nerves he felt when he first started singing for crowds. The star has been open about his personal life, from featuring his son in the "Watching You” video to serving as a national adoption spokesman. A sickly child, he was put up for adoption and twice returned by prospective parents before Allan and Margaret Atkins adopted and raised him. "Once I started playing ... the songs that I had written just about personal life, and saw the reaction from people, that was when I was at ease,” he said. His pursuit of real-life songs continues, since Atkins is halfway through recording his next album, with plans to release the first single in spring. He promised to play new music tonight in Durant. "I love trying new songs out for folks,” he said. "I love that aspect of playing songs for a real crowd.” And he will be wearing his cap, since he doesn’t take it off for much, not even awards show red carpets. "My wife and church, it comes off for that,” he said. "It’s just one of those things.”
Rodney Atkins and Craig Morgan
→When: 8 tonight. Doors open at 7 p.m.
→Where: Choctaw Nation Event Center, 3702 Choctaw Road, Durant. →Information: (800) 585-3737 or www.choctawcasinos.com.