Country Music Star Rodney Atkins Sticks With What Works

By J. Freedom du Lac
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Rodney Atkins has been accumulating fans at a fairly dizzying clip since 2006, when he began a remarkable run of four consecutive No. 1 singles on Billboard's Hot Country chart.

But there was one notable person who was slow to jump aboard the country singer's rapidly filling bandwagon: His own birth mother, who had no idea that the son she gave up for adoption as an infant was a Nashville star until she met him last year.

"She said: 'You play music?' " Atkins recalls backstage at the 9:30 club before a recent concert. "I told her that yeah, I'd even been out on tour with Brad Paisley and Brooks and Dunn -- and she had no idea who they were. But she knew who Alan Jackson was, because he had done a gospel album. It was cute."

Atkins doesn't sing directly about his experiences as an adopted child on "It's America," the follow-up to his 2006 breakthrough, "If You're Going Through Hell." But the mostly up-tempo new album (in stores today) closes with the meditative ballad "The River Just Knows," which is about healing, coming home and forgiveness -- themes Atkins says apply to his "spiritual journey" over the past two years, as he's served as celebrity spokesman for the National Council for Adoption.

The role called for Atkins to talk early and often about the benefits of adoption, and it eventually prompted him to pursue the meeting with his mother, nearly 40 years after he'd been sent to the Holston children's home in Greeneville, Tenn. (He was adopted by three families as an infant; the first two returned him because he was sickly.)

"Talking about adoption so much got me thinking and wondering a whole lot about what makes you who you are," Atkins says. "And there was the other side of people coming up with bags of hair, saying they're my brother and wanting me to run some sort of genetic scan to determine if they were. I wound up deciding to meet my birth mom because it was getting out of control. I wanted to keep promoting the adoption thing, but people kept hitting me with the 'I'm-your-kin' thing. I wanted to put that to rest.

"I have the best parents in the world -- they're wonderful, amazing folks. But I'm glad I met her. Because after I did, I realized she'd been carrying that with her for a long, long time, not knowing what happened to me. She did the best that she could and made a choice and here I am. And that's about as far as I'll go with it. It's a very personal thing."

Atkins is folded into a dressing-room chair that can't quite fit his long, lanky frame. He looks as if he's come to the club straight from the photo shoot for the cover of "It's America," wearing essentially the same outfit as on the new album: black leather jacket, black shirt with stars silk-screened across the front, tattered brown baseball cap with the bill rolled just so. The patch on his hat reads: "I Love Animals. They Taste Great!" It's a joke, he insists: "I'm not that crazy hunter guy. I enjoy being in the woods and being outside and going fishing. But that's just being funny."

He doesn't laugh, though. His eyes are flinty. His mouth is stuck somewhere between a scowl and a smile, though it's more the latter. And why not?

After flailing around for years, trying new sounds (he experimented with singing like Roy Orbison) and styles (big cowboy hat, leather pants), he's finally found a formula that works: a fairly simple and direct just-folks approach that calls for Atkins to wear ball caps and jeans while singing songs that tend to be a catchy combination of wide-reaching observations (usually about women or Middle America) and good ol' Southern swagger -- as with "These Are My People," an unapologetic celebration of country folk that became a No. 1 hit.

His signature song, "If You're Going Through Hell," is a determined anthem about survival that became the most-played country single of 2006 and a rallying cry for American soldiers and their families. "It's America's" rousing title track, which is surging up the country charts and currently sits at No. 5, finds Atkins celebrating all things Americana: a high school prom, a Springsteen song, a ride in a Chevrolet, a man on the moon, fireflies in June, etc.

Sometimes, though, his songs have a more personal feel -- his most successful writing credit, "Watching You," is about his relationship with his own son, Elijah. (The song also happened to be country's most-played of 2007, according to Billboard.) But more typical are "It's America" entries "Friends With Tractors" and "Best Things," in which Atkins ticks off a list of things men love, such as football, alcohol, power tools and, of course, women. If "It's America" sounds something like a sequel -- "If You're Still Going Through Hell," if you will -- that's because it's exactly what Atkins was hoping to do.

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