Rodney Atkins has toured with superstar artists – Brad Paisley, Brooks & Dunn, Martina McBride – and with four #1 singles under his belt, he’s quickly becoming a big name in country music himself. But talking to Atkins on the phone, you’d never suspect he’s anything but a regular Nashville dad. His deep Southern voice lights up every time he speaks of his son, Elijah, and he has the everyman tendency of breaking into song throughout our conversation. Maybe that’s why legions of fans are drawn to the guy in the baseball cap, as Atkins is affectionately known. Because that’s exactly what he is – a down-to-earth parent who’d be just as happy strumming guitar with his son than performing to sold-out arenas. Here, he dishes on swear words, Springsteen, and the simple things he enjoys about being a Dad. – Andrea Zimmerman
You’ve got four #1 singles. You’ve toured with huge names. People know and love you as a country artist. Are you happy?
Yes! I’ve been having a great time but it has been an adjustment. I was a song-writer first, so my day was get up, go into town, and work on songs, I was usually back home by 5 or 6 o’clock. And now, I’m going for 10-day [tour] runs, so it’s an adjustment but we’ve learned how to make it work. Like this summer, my wife [Tammy] and little boy [Elijah, 8] came out on the road with me as soon as school was out.
As you make your way up the country charts, musicians that you once looked up to are becoming peers. Have you ever been starstruck?
In 2005, I was trying to make some extra money selling firewood. A friend of mine was the property manager for Alan Jackson, and he said, ‘Can I get some wood for Alan?’ And I said, ‘Let me do it!’ So I delivered wood to Alan Jackson’s house. I didn’t get to meet him that time, but six months later, we were doing shows with him and he invited me on his bus to talk. I was a little awestruck. It was very surreal to be talking to someone who has been such an influence on me musically, plus the whole circle of, ‘Thanks for getting me through Christmas that year.’ Very cool.
On your new album, there’s a song called ‘Simple Things,’ about appreciating the little things in life. What are the simple things you enjoy about being a parent?
Oh, wow:experiencing things for the first time. Seeing how incredibly smart and sponge-like your kids are. It’s unconditional with your kid. Elijah can be completely crazy sometimes, when the testosterone is kicking in and he’s getting into dirt, climbing up hills, throwing rocks, and jumping off stumps. And I’m thinking, ‘Why does he have to go crazy?’ But it all makes sense to me. I can remember doing those same things. I love everything about it.
One of your biggest hits, ‘Watching You,’ is about how your son, Elijah, mirrors the things you do, like swearing and praying. Is the song based on real life experiences or fiction?
Both. I went to pick Elijah up from Pre-K one day, and his teacher stopped me one and said, ‘We need to talk about Elijah.’ I said, ‘What’s going on?’ And she said, ‘We’re teaching kids how to line up for lunch today, and once all the kids got quiet, Elijah started singing a song I don’t think is appropriate for school.’ And I said, ‘Well, what’s it called?’ And she said, ‘It goes something like, ‘If you’re going through hell, keep on going:’ [the lyrics to Rodney’s hit song, ‘If You’re Going Through Hell’]. And I said, ‘Ohhhhh.’
You see, I do the vocals for my album at home, so Elijah likes to be the room with me when I’m singing. He just lays on the floor with his coloring book. So he has heard that song over and over and he’s learned it. When we got home, we talked about the song and what it meant, and after that, I wound up writing the song, ‘Watching You,’ about my four-year-old saying a four-letter word. Actually, I just found out the song lyrics are going to be in greeting cards for Father’s Day.
That’s great! So what did Elijah think about being in a music video with you?
He didn’t really process it. He’s been around music and been on stage at such a young age he doesn’t really get nervous, he’s just himself. Now that he’s turning eight in September, he gets a little more quiet, a little shyer.
What type of music does he listen to?
He listens to country, rock. He just discovered Guitar Hero. The other day, he started learning guitar chords, and I said, ‘Alright, buddy, what’s the first song you want to learn? This is a big song now, because for the rest of your life, everybody’s going to ask you what the first song was you learned.’
And he said, ‘I want to learn the song about riding in the car with the Dad,’ and I said, ‘Oh, that’s your song, you should learn that one first, and I started playing ‘Watching You.’ And he said, ‘No, not that song, the other one, and he started singing the lyrics to a Springsteen song. (Singing) Eight years old, riding with a dime in my hand:”
So I said, ‘Okay, Springsteen. Well, that’s a good one, too.’
That’s really funny. A few years down the line, if he were to say, ‘Hey Dad, I want to be a country singer,’ what would you say to him?
I’d say give it everything you got.
Right now, what does he want to be when he grows up?
He wants to be an animal doctor, a baseball player. I think he wants to play guitar. I just encourage him to do something that’s very fulfilling and purposeful, something that touches folks’ lives. That’s all you can really do, love and support your kids’ dreams unconditionally.
You also have two teenage step-daughters, Lindsey and Morgan, who you mention in your song, ‘Cleaning That Gun,’ which is about being tough on their boyfriends. Are you an overprotective Dad?
“Your life is defined at that moment, once that kid comes in your life.” I’m a pushover. I think at first, I thought I was supposed to be that guy. When you first meet the boyfriends, you play that, ‘You’re not good enough for her. You’ve got to prove yourself. Respect my daughter.’ But then you become a pushover, and I get along with all the guys.
I think at age 10, 11, 12, little girls are unbelievable. They’re sweet, they make sense. I can remember sitting with them, braiding hair. But something happens when the girls turn into teenagers. I’m like, ‘What just happened? Where’d the little girls go?’ They grow up, shave their legs, start wearing makeup, I don’t understand any of that. But with teenage boys, it’s pretty clear what they’re thinking about at any given moment: food, girls, or sports.
You’re also very open about being adopted. Has that changed the way you are as a parent?
It makes you really thankful. I don’t know if it really changes how I am as a parent but the one thing that really got me was when Elijah was born, and the nurse put him in my hands. She walked out of the room, and I said to my wife, ‘You know, I’m holding the only blood relative I’ve ever met.’ And it just makes you cherish how fortunate and unbelievable it is. Your life is defined at that moment, once that kid comes in your life, whether they’re adopted or not.
Obviously, family is high priority for you. Do they come with you when you tour?
I love it when they do. My wife will come out for a weekend run, here and there, to get out the house. When school’s out, she and Elijah will come. Right now, Lindsey and Morgan are doing the college thing, but we like to get together for a vacation, meet down at the beach and hang out. It’s wonderful. But you know, once you step out the door, you’re always trying to get back home.
So, what’s the future for Rodney Atkins?
I just want to keep on making music, touching folks’ lives, and putting on shows somewhere between Garth Brooks and Bruce Springsteen. I’m having a blast.
One last parenting tip.
Be present. Every chance you get.