Singer Aaron Lewis is best known as the frontman for Staind, the Springfield, Mass.-based band that formed in 1995 and was active up until this year. Lumped in with the nu-metal hard rock acts popular at the time, the group toured with acts like Limp Bizkit in 1999 and then broke through to the mainstream with 2001's Break the Cycle, an album that featured the moody power ballad "It's Been Awhile," a powerful break-up tune about trying to recover one's self-esteem. It became the group's biggest hit. But for Lewis, who last year released The Road, a terrific collection of original country tunes, rock 'n' roll wasn't his first love.
"I grew up very country," says Lewis of his upbringing in rural Vermont. "It sounds cliché, but I was a country kid long before I was a rock star. The first music I ever heard was my grandfather's country. That was Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, George Jones and Charlie Daniels. I was born in 1972, so I heard whatever was on the radio in the mid-'70s."
The fact that he's in the midst of a deer-hunting outing somewhere in Texas as he conducts his interview on his cell phone suggests the extent to which he still embraces his rural roots. And he's not just out there with a shotgun, either. "I'm insistent on using a bow and arrow," he says.
Lewis made his first foray into country with the 2011 EP Town Line, a six-song collection of country tunes that hearken back to the time when country had yet to turn pop.
"That was my first have at it," he says of the album. "The first country song I ever sat down and tried to write was 'Country Boy.' My draw to country music was starting to come around as I get older. I feel what's going on in that old traditional country more than I feel a connection to the angry young man that I've written about. I'm not an angry young man at this point. I have a wife and three kids and have responsibilities and I see things differently than I did ten years ago."
And yet after that album came out, he was back with Staind last summer as part of the Uproar Tour (and the band swung through town to play Blossom). The group's straightforward approach was actually a relief from the over-the-top approach taken by bands such as Godsmack and Shinedown.
"That's always been the deal with us," Lewis explains. "We've always tried to have a good solid light show that creates a vibe — not so busy and flashy with craziness going on. Other than that, it's been about letting the music speak for itself."
But Staind is now on hiatus so Lewis can focus on his country career.
"Everything has to come to an end," he says. "It came to the end of the touring cycle for the last record we put out which happens to be the last album of our contract. We wanted to end up as free agents at some point. After 15 years of being out on the road together, we were ready for a break. [Staind guitarist] Mike [Mushok] is doing his own thing. He has irons in the fire. I got this going on. It was time for us to take a break from being stuck to each other for 20 years."
On The Road, Lewis builds upon Town Limit's foundation. His voice seems particularly suited to the music and on "Lessons Learned," he sounds a bit like Johnny Cash, who's even mentioned in the lyrics.
"Didn't know I could sing that low, did you?" he says. "It's the first song that I ever approached the vocal from my talking voice rather than my singing voice."
In "Red, White & Blue," he sings about how his grandmother worked at a factory and his grandfather "worked the beer joints." Lines such as "worked all the beer joints in town trying to forget the memories he made" speak to his grandfather's troubled past.
"He was trying to forget the memories of World War II," Lewis explains. "Yes, it's autobiographical."
The album's sole cover is a rendition of the Rhett Atkins/Dallas Davidson/Bobby Pinson-penned tune "Granddaddy's Gun." It's a great version of the tune, but to hear Lewis tell it, the song was practically an accident.
"I sat down to write my version of that song on multiple occasions and it just never happened," says Lewis. "We recorded the album in a total of 30 hours and I was trying to record an album while I was out with Staind and on that one day off I would fly into Nashville to record. It was a blur. I had nine songs and didn't have the time or energy to cram another song in. I've been good friends with Rhett Atkins for a while. It's a song that Rhett, Dallas Davidson and Bobby Pinson wrote together. We were in hunting camp sitting around a campfire and somebody had a guitar and played that song and I totally related to that song. Everything about that, including the grandfather saying, 'A gun is like a woman, it's all about how you hold her.'"
Going country hasn't necessarily been easy. Lewis says he's had fun playing Texas honkytonk joints such as Billy Bob's and Nutty Jerry's and he's hoping country fans will like his music.
"It's been an interesting journey. It has," he says. "It's not over by any means. I've still got a long way to go. The song 'Forever' is doing pretty good. I'll be lucky to be in a situation where I'm getting spins. You hope that the people who are hearing it like what they're hearing. I've learned firsthand that some people don't. I have an eight-record career preceding this and there are people who really want to hear me playing Staind stuff and don't necessarily want to hear — don't take this the wrong way — their favorite rock singer singing country when they might not like country at all. So it has been an interesting run."