By Abel Folgar
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By New Times Staff
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Pity the record-company honchos charged with marketing country singer Rodney Atkins. Image is everything in the music biz — look no further than Taylor Swift, Justin Timberlake, or Lady Gaga. Atkins is an artist whose image is eschewing any image at all. In fact, since the launch of his platinum-selling sophomore set, If You're Going Through Hell, nearly four years ago, and the recent release of his current album, It's America, the label bosses have had to be content with tagging him as a sort of Everyman, a guy who opts for a baseball cap over a cowboy hat and songs that celebrate ordinary people in everyday circumstances.
"It's really just me," Atkins insists. "Talk about going through hell... On the very first photo shoot I did with the label, they flew me out to somewhere I'd never been before and told me, 'We want you to be completely natural and be yourself.' So we get out there and they bring a hairstylist — hairdresser, 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. That didn't work. Jeans, ball cap, T-shirt — that's me... and luckily that's worked."
Worked indeed. In the past three years, Atkins has chalked up a hefty amount of accolades and honors. The 40-year-old singer has snared four number-one singles as well as the Academy of Country Music Top New Male Vocalist trophy, Billboard's Most Played Song of the Year two years running, and nominations for top honors from both the ACM and the CMA.
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Not too shabby for a guy who didn't get his first guitar until high school and spent his time at Tennessee Tech University traveling back and forth to Nashville in an attempt to establish himself on the Music City circuit. Adopted as an infant, he was fortunate that his new parents encouraged him and even influenced him — his father sang in a gospel group — but it was his own drive and determination that found him seeking stardom.
"When It's America came out, I made the mistake of reading a review," Atkins recalls. "The only critique the person could come up with was saying, 'This guy's been through some tough times; why doesn't he sing about that stuff? We want to hear about adversity.' 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 (Before the Devil Even Knows)' is that it's pretty silly to wallow in despair, because that gets you nowhere."
Regardless, it's that pride in perseverance and overcoming obstacles that's found Atkins celebrating heartland heroes, the ordinary, unassuming, just plain folks who take survival in stride and do their best to make it one day to the next. It's an idea manifest in It's America, from "Chasin' Girls" and "Friends With Tractors," songs that celebrate blue-collar concerns, to the gritty resilience and pride of "Tell a Country Boy" and "It's America" and the good-ol'-boy, celebratory stance of "Got It Good," "Simple Things," and "Best Things."
"People ask me what songs I'm drawn to, and they're songs about real life," he says simply. "It's hard for me to write a song or be drawn to something that I can't relate to on some level. I think the stuff I sing about is for regular folks out there... It's about celebrating the simple things in life."