|Photo: Jim Wright|
In the lyrics, he sings that today’s hit-makers are “full of tales of good times and happy endings/my life ain’t like that/so I’ll keep listenin’ to the old songs that my granddad used to play/full of pain and heartbreak and desperation and the ones that got away.”
Lewis first came to prominence during the late ’90s as the vocalist for Staind. A mainstay on now-defunct Inland Empire radio station KCXX/103.9 FM, the alt-metal band racked up four platinum CDs and a dozen top 20 singles through 2012.
The group suddenly came to a crossroads when Lewis got tired of reliving childhood dramas and wanted to try something new.
Having grown up in rural Massachusetts (where he still lives with a wife and daughters), country music is at Lewis’ core. Debut EP “Town Line” was well-received and reached No. 1. The single “Country Boy” featured Jones and Daniels; its video even received a CMT nomination. Full-length follow up “The Road” made a stronger impression and Lewis played the 2012 Stagecoach Festival.
Now the singer is back with a new label (Dot Records, distributed by heavyweight Big Machine) and new producer (Buddy Cannon, whose resume includes George Strait, Haggard and Jones) for a solid second album, “Sinner.”
Last month, it topped Billboard’s country albums chart and boasts impressive guests including Willie Nelson, Alison Krauss and Vince Gill. Everything was recorded in a brisk 16 hours.
“We wanted to do it the old-fashioned way, where you had to knock it all out in one take,” Lewis said. “The experiment really worked well.”
Krauss, a multiple Grammy winner with Union Station and Robert Plant, arrived to harmonize on one song, then ended up contributing to several more.
“She liked the record so much that she kept calling to ask if she could come in and sing again, which is just amazing,” recalled Lewis. “I’m blessed and so lucky for her to have been a part of it and appreciate what I was doing.”
The same held true for Union Station’s multi-instrumentalist Dan Tyminski, the singing voice of George Clooney in the 2000 film satire, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?”
“He’s all over the record, playing guitar and singing backup harmonies,” noted Lewis, who still can’t believe his fortune getting to work with such artists. “I pinch myself every day.”
Despite the high caliber of talent around Nashville these days, Lewis had a hand penning nine of 11 tracks on the new album. It was important to put his own personal stamp on the affecting tunes about redemption and spirituality.
“I think a little something is lost in translation when the person who is delivering the song did not write the song,” he said.
The stark remake of Chris Stapleton’s “Whiskey and You,” off 2015’s award-winning “The Traveler,” was a last-minute addition.
“I heard that one night, having had a little bit too much to drink, and it completely flattened me. Chris had no intention of releasing the song as a single, so when we got finished with song No. 9 (in the studio) and we needed song No. 10, I suggested it because I had been covering it already (live). Chris said he’d be honored for me to cut the song.”
Other standouts are the swampy title track duet with Nelson (among several featuring wicked harmonica work from Mickey Raphael of the Red-Headed Stranger’s touring band); a quiet, acoustic guitar-based “Mama,” the sad “Lost and Lonely,” “Stuck in These Shoes” and twangy “Northern Redneck.”
The latter is a response to people who feel New Englanders like Lewis can’t write authentic country music.
“It came from everybody north of the Mason-Dixon pretty much being excluded out of every single country song ever written — especially lately. That was the inspiration. Most of my dad’s side of the family is as Podunk as it gets.”
Lewis’ teenage girl Zoe handles lead on Bruce Robison’s “Travelin’ Soldier” (a No. 1 hit for Dixie Chicks).
“I just wanted to create a memory with my daughter that no one could ever screw up. I’ve heard her sing that a thousand times around the house … I was an extremely proud papa [afterwards].”
By all rights, “Sinner” should prove to those whose question Lewis’ transition from rock to country that he’s the real deal.
“It’s taken five years, three records and a whole bunch of sold out shows before anybody finally took notice and realized that I’m not going anywhere. I grew up on country music. It was the first music I ever heard. Get over it. I am country and I’ve been country my whole life. Just because I had a career in the rock business didn’t make me any less country.”
City National Grove of Anaheim
When: 8 p.m. Thursday.
Address: 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim.
Information: 714-712-2700, www.citynationalgroveofanaheim.com
Riverside Municipal Auditorium
When: 7 p.m. Saturday.
Address: 3485 Mission Inn Ave.
Information: 951-779-9800, www.riversidelive.com, www.aaronlewismusic.com.
My article originally appeared at sbsun.com and dailybulletin.com.