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From alt-rock to outlaw country, Aaron Lewis shares struggles amid success

Alt-rock and country musician Aaron Lewis (Photo by Jim Wright)

Fans are going to see a lot of Aaron Lewis when he takes the Atwood Concert Hall stage on Jan. 16.

Lewis is leaving his performing band the Stateliners behind to share his brand of outlaw country in “its purest form,” with only a microphone and his acoustic guitar.

“There’s nothing to hide behind,” he said. “You might as well be sitting out there on the stool completely naked.”

Exposing his deepest self through music has earned Lewis not just one career, but two.

After starting his musical life as the lead singer and writer for the alternative rock group Staind in the mid-1990s through their self-titled release in 2011, Lewis released his third studio country album, “State I’m In,” last April just shy of his 47th birthday to a No. 2 debut on the Billboard Country chart.

That was just one spot off from his second country album, “Sinner,” that featured Willie Nelson on the title track and hit No. 1 in 2016.

Staind sold more than 15 million albums over its run covering some 16 years, with nearly half of those sales coming from the 2001 album “Break the Cycle” that debuted at No. 1. That album featured the group’s biggest hit “It’s Been a While,” which spent 20 weeks and 16 weeks, respectively, at No. 1 on Billboard’s Mainstream and Modern rock charts.

After a hiatus since 2012, Lewis took a break from his tour promoting “State I’m In” this past October to reunite with Staind for a pair of sold-out shows that were so well-received the band booked 50 dates for 2020.

As a songwriter, Lewis said transitioning from the post-grunge era to crafting country that embraces its traditions wasn’t as difficult as it may sound.

“It was pretty easy,” he said. “The first songs were really just talking about myself and my childhood and my upbringing and telling the story in a different way.

“I don’t even think I changed the chords that I was writing songs with. I’ve always looked at it like a good song is a good song. If you can strip it all the way down to an acoustic song that stands on its own as an acoustic song, then it really doesn’t matter what colors you decide to use in your creative box of crayons to color the rest of the song in.”

Kicking it with Kid Rock

There aren’t many stories Lewis can share from his time with Staind touring with Kid Rock, but one explains how he decided to move on into country music.

Lewis spent much of his time on Kid Rock’s tour bus partying over late nights on the road to a soundtrack of almost nothing but old-school country, represented by the likes of Merle Haggard, George Jones, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

“And it was like triggers of my childhood,” Lewis recalled of his youth in Massachusetts, the inspiration behind songs like “Northern Redneck” and where he still lives with his wife and three daughters ages 17, 15 and 12.

“It was a reintroduction to all this music that I had heard so many times when I was a kid, and it just really kind of reopened those doors and came flooding back into my life all the way up until I recorded my first country record.”

Lewis hadn’t thought about the country music his grandfather played in years. His parents were more into “folky” music and R&B.

“It was something that as a kid I ran away from as fast as I could run for so many reasons,” he said.

Lewis started running from his family’s music at age 8 when his babysitter gave him six albums: “The Wall” and “Dark Side of the Moon” by Pink Floyd; “Destroyer” and “Alive II” by Kiss; and “Dirty Deeds” and “Back in Black” by AC/DC.

His dad introduced him to the bass at a young age, but by the time he was 7 Lewis convinced his dad to let him play the guitar; even back then Lewis realized that being able to play guitar would give him total control over performing a song.

Heavily influenced by hardcore rock groups like Korn, Tool and Pantera, Lewis’ musical rebellion as a youngster actually ran afoul of Fred Durst from Limp Bizkit when Staind was set to perform on the same concert bill in 1997.

Durst was so offended by the graphic cover art on Staind’s self-published debut album “Tormented” that he thought they were Satanists and wanted them kicked out of the show.

But after seeing them play, it ended up being Staind’s big break as Durst was so impressed he signed the group to his label, co-produced their next album and took them on his “Family Values” tour in 1999.

Once he decided to try his hand at country, Lewis’ big break was getting to work with legendary Nashville producer James Stroud on his 2011 EP “Town Line” that featured George Jones and Charlie Daniels on his debut single “Country Boy.”

“That was his belief in me and what I was doing and his ability to pick up the phone and call anybody he wanted to,” Lewis said. “I really tripped into a pile of sh*t and came up smelling like roses. That was just sheer luck and somebody deep in the business who’s done everything from session musician to hundreds of millions of records sold under his belt as a producer believing in what I was doing.”

‘That ain’t country’

For Lewis, success hasn’t changed his songwriting.

The struggles that have influenced him the most are mental, not material.

“It was never life struggles,” he said. “It was psychological struggles and those don’t go away. They just may change some perspective throughout time. I’m still the same broken, f----- up individual I was 30 years ago. There’s just more layers of band-aids and more layers of sh-- to hide behind. I’m still the same person. The inspiration still comes from the same place.

“The cool thing about country music is it’s a different avenue for expressing it, you know, the stories get told in a different way. They get told with a different verbiage if you will. It's just a different avenue. And I’m very much looking forward to being able to pour some anger and frustration out into some songs with Staind as well.

“It’s always been my catharsis. It's always been my vent. It's always been my way of getting things out that I'm not really good at expressing in day-to-day conversation. It’s always been an outlet for me. I think that's why I hold it so tightly and protect it so much.”

Songwriting is so personal for Lewis that he can’t get into the “Nashville thing” of collaborating with others or penning a song for someone else. He’s also resisted recording anything written by others, with a few notable exceptions starting with “Granddaddy’s Gun” from his first full-length album “The Road” in 2012.

Lewis said he tried to write a song with the same story about the bond between a boy and his granddad “100 times over” but couldn’t get it.

“That was the first song ever in my career that I recorded that I didn’t write,” Lewis said of the song by Rhett Akins, Bobby Pinson and Dallas Davidson. “I have pages and pages in a notebook somewhere writing a similar sentiment type song. I just hadn’t captured it the way those guys did.”

Although Lewis finds it “validating” to have built a loyal following and to sell out shows without the support of country radio or major labels, he remains an outspoken critic of where many of the most popular artists are taking the genre.

He rejected the premise that the debate is similar to sports fans arguing over teams from different eras.

“The problem with that is that it’s not even basketball anymore,” he said. “It’s like they’re playing volleyball but they’re calling it basketball.”

For Lewis, he’s going to keep on playing it the old way as he described it in his 2016 song “That Ain’t Country”:

It's full of tales of hard times and complications

Ain’t life like that?

So I’ll keep listening to the old songs that my granddad used to play

Full of pain and heartache and desperation

And the ones that got away

The ones that speak to me

The way I feel today

Aaron Lewis

When: 8 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 16 at the Atwood Concert Hall

Tickets from $39 (balcony) to $214 (VIP meet and greet). See