If 10 years ago, someone had told Aaron Lewis his future was in country music, he would have laughed. But when the frontman for double platinum-selling nu metal band Staind became restless, it turned out country was as natural a fit as a well-worn pair of cowboy boots. Unsurprisingly, Staind fans shook their heads when they learned of Lewis’ venturing to the dark side. But given the singer’s emotive, baritone pipes and his proven talent (penchant) for the rock ballad, the journey was more of a country mile than a quantum leap. Nashville didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet for Lewis, either, but his full-length The Road has hovered around 20th place on Billboard for 13 weeks. And while his hard rock origins may court suspicion, his politics should more than make up for it. Straddling the fence between Tea Partier and Libertarian (he thinks the Republican party “is a joke”), Lewis wears his patriotism on his sleeve and has the U.S. Constitution printed on his guitar picks. And yes, he admires Ted Nugent. “I wish I could take on adversity as well as Ted,” he says. Recorded in only 30 hours, The Road is everything you would expect from a dyed-in-the-wool, patriotic country boy — whether or not he has full sleeves (stars and stripes fly proudly on his inkscape), physically threatened a mudslinging fan at a festival concert and was named one of heavy metal’s all-time top vocalists by Hit Parader magazine. His songwriting is genre-perfect, and cameo performances by Charlie Daniels and George Jones lend the record an extra shot of credibility. With his pig Prince Wilhelm (named by his precocious daughters) grunting in the background, Lewis spoke to VCReporter from his ranch in the foothills of the Berkshires in “Taxachusetts.” But not until he readied himself with a dip of chewing tobacco.
VCReporter:You haven’t closed the door on Staind. You’re just adding country music to your repertoire, correct?
Aaron Lewis: We’re hibernating if you will. We are a big circus bear that has seen enough of the circus for a little bit, and we’re taking a little break.
Has there been fallout from Staind fans since you went to the other side?
Sure. Not everybody affords the artist that they’re a fan of the freedom to go where they are inspired to go. And artists get pigeonholed into doing one thing. And throughout my entire career I have fought the pigeonholing to the best of my ability, putting songs on records that were polar opposites of other records, always trying to cover the spectrum. If people actually knew me the way they think they did, the one way I could change what I was doing to re-inspire myself, and yet stay true to myself and my history and roots, the first music I ever heard in my life was country.
Did you always know you would be a musician?
No. My mom will tell you that she always knew I would do something big with my life. I knew that it was something that was God-given, and that I didn’t have to try to do it, it always came very easy to me. I didn’t realize that was one of the secrets to enjoying life, doing something that comes naturally, your calling so to speak.
Your voice lends itself well to contemporary country. It doesn’t seem like a huge leap from Staind’s rock ballads. Do you find the songwriting process to be much different?
The key thing is that it’s a different set of subject matter. For the main body of my lyrics for that project [Staind], I couldn’t have put those to country songs. It was too dark, too soul-searching, and at that point in my life I had no interest whatsoever. If you told me 10 years ago I would do a country record, I would have laughed at you; but when the time came to do something, it was the logical choice and things had happened where the story of me riding on Kid Rock’s tour bus and hearing all this old country and realizing this was the country my grandfather listened to, and this was the first music I ever heard and I really had a hard time getting away from it. I have satellite radio and I found myself listening to Outlaw Country and then . . . it was kind of a progression, and it slowly overtook my inspiration, if you will. On the last Staind record, I found myself in the middle of this heavy, heavy riff and in the middle of this heavy song that I was trying to come up with, screamed lyrics for a country tune. What it was, was the beginning of “75.” That song came pushing through one of the heaviest tracks on the new Staind record. It just took over and all I really did was embrace it.
You’ve worked with some country music legends. What’s that been like?
Really surreal. The first legends that I was really able to work with. I’ve done a lot of things with a lot of people but they were my peers. They weren’t here for 30 years before me. Me and Charlie Daniels hit it off really well. He and I see eye to eye on most, if not all, aside from the fact that the North did win. [Laughs.] But it was some funny conversations. To have been a fly on the wall would have been pretty cool.
How have you been received by country audiences?
Anybody that’s come and seen me play, any radio station I’ve gone into and played the songs for acoustically have all come around and get it. And there’re still those who are waiting for me to be able to bust my way through every road block they put up. So it’s been fun.
So they’re making you prove yourself.
That’s fine. I have no problems proving myself. But once I proved myself, there’s no excuse for your lack of effort to help me get noticed in this industry. It’s a tough thing, too, because I’d like to think that Staind held pretty high standings in the world we lived in for the 15 years we’ve been here. But I’m having to start over. The only thing I have going for me is that I can already sell as many, if not more, tickets than those that I’m competing with on the radio. That’s the one thing I’ve got going for me. And the one thing that will keep me pressing forward.
Is radio still important?
In the country world, radio is very important. Is it the only way to survive? Heck, no. There are solid artists who sell lots of tickets who have a hard time getting played on radio. People who don’t even like country are going, “Man, how are they not playing these songs on the radio?” You make sure you have a good pair of shoes on and you keep pressing forward. It worked the last time around. We [Staind] opened up for every band we could for our first record. We put in our dues and beat the door down.
Your political leanings are unapologetically conservative. What’s your take on the current gun control discussion?
I’m a constitutionalist and there’s a reason why everything is designed the way that it is. It makes it so, without a shadow of a doubt, it takes a completely unanimous decision to change anything within it, and the Bill of Rights is part of it. A gun could sit on a kitchen table cocked and loaded for 500 years and never kill anyone till a human being picks it up. Are you going to put a restriction on hammers? Are you going to make it so households can’t have kitchen knives? The three highest gun crime-rated-cities in America all have the three strictest rules on law-abiding citizens to protect themselves. Regulations and laws only apply to law-abiding citizens. There are always gonna be crazies. Maladjusted human beings that have lost their handle on life and do messed up things, and whether they have a gun or not will not stop them. It’s completely absurd.
What’s the response to your guitar picks?
Nothing but good. I know and realize that even though my thought process removes a lot of the social aspects of what our government provides . . . if the state wants to have a state-operated welfare system, if a state wants to legalize abortion, it is up to that state. Every social issue out there is not a federal government issue; it is a state and local issue. I’m sure I’ve lost some fans along the way from finally being old enough to not keep my mouth shut all the way, but such is life. The quicker we stand up and take responsibility for ourselves, the better off we all are.
What should audiences expect from you on this tour?
A little bit of a roller coaster ride, I guess. It starts quiet and picks up and goes back to quiet and picks up again. It will be a mix of all my new country stuff and a couple songs from my past and a couple covers, and different ways of playing them. I have a full band with me so it will be just like it sounds on the record, and the stuff from my past, I step away from the band for a minute and a play a few by myself.
Did you watch the Grammys?
No, not at all. All that stuff is like . . . I plead the Fifth. (Laughs.)
Aaron Lewis will perform at The Canyon on Wednesday, Feb. 27. Visit, www.canyonclub.net.