There’s a lot of different kinds of music in this big wide world, so many different kinds of music that nobody could even name them all. Everybody could name a few though, and two kinds of music that almost everybody can name are Rock and Country. Each of them is its own wide world, and although they do share some history, they don’t share a lot of artists, or a lot of audiences.
There’s plenty of music in America, and a lot of it’s out on the road, rolling down interstates, sea to shining sea. The tour buses carrying Rock acts look a lot like the ones carrying Country acts, but even if they do pass each other on the interstate, they’ll always be in two very different worlds. It’s true that Rock and Country have a few things in common, and the more acoustic, lyrical kinds of Rock aren’t all that different from some Country music. Still, the louder and heavier Rock gets, the less it sounds anything like the handcrafted story songs from a Nashville session, where most of the guitars are played undistorted, and the pedal steel might answer every careful line of a clear, melodic vocal.
That makes Aaron Lewis a very unusual story, because after sixteen years in a band called Staind (who’ve sold fifteen million very heavy rock albums), he recorded five country songs and put them together on an independent country EP. It had a picture on the cover of a sign by the side of the road that said “Entering Nashville”, and he called it Town Line. If that doesn’t sound all that astonishing, it’s because that’s not the really unusual part. When Town Line was released in March, 2011 it became the No. 1 Country album, and that’s not only way past unusual, it may be unprecedented.
Last November, Aaron Lewis followed up Town Line with his first full length Country album, The Road. He has a studio full of vintage gear in a barn on his property (Staind recorded their last two albums there), but to make The Road he worked with one of Nashville’s most respected producers, James Stroud. He made the album one afternoon session at a time, flying into Nashville from wherever the Staind tour left him with a day off, and flying back out the same night to pick up the tour again.
You can take that album title a lot of different ways as you listen to The Road, because even though three of the songs actually are about being on the road, even those play like part of a bigger story. “I’ve worn the tires off this bus ten times” Lewis sings in “State Lines”, and he’s been out there a lot, that’s for sure. He’s rolled down interstates in a tour bus with his Rock band, and he’s out there weeks and months at a time with his Country band, but a lot of the music he writes ends up being about home. “I’m tired of missing the moments I’ll never get back,” he sings in “75”, “this highway ain’t no place for home loving drifters like me.”
Lyrics are a big part of what makes Country its own world, and they’re a big part of why so many of its fans feel like Country is more than just its own world, it’s their world. You can’t just walk right in and say you’re a country artist, let alone a country songwriter, unless you really are; a true country music lover isn’t going to buy any part of it unless they believe it’s real.
There’s no reason to believe that Aaron Lewis ever gave that any thought, though, because he probably never thought about being anything but real anyway. Most of the songs on The Road aren’t just about what’s real, in a lot of them Lewis writes about the parts of life that can be real hard. “My Daddy grew up on the wrong side of poor, rubbing nickels together for heat,” he sings in “Red, White and Blue”. It’s one of the songs where you can hear most clearly where Aaron Lewis comes from, and it paints a family-framed picture of real pride, real patriotism, and what they can sometimes really cost.
“That’s my family,” he says, talking about the song, and about the immense importance to everyone in his family, not just of being proud of their country, but of being willing to stand up for it. “My Grandmother worked in a pocketbook factory. My Grandfather was a veteran of World War II, and he came back from the war with malaria and tuberculosis.” It’s not an idealized picture, but it gives you a clear picture of Aaron Lewis’ ideals. The last verse goes “Well me and my sisters got kids of our own, and my brother’s comin’ up on sixteen, and my Daddy taught us all how to live off the land, and to stand up for what we believe”. That last line is really about two important things. What you believe in is one of them, but the other, just as important, is being willing to stand up for it. Aaron Lewis has a real good idea of where Country music comes from, and if he’s been accepted as a Country artist, it’s probably because he also has a real good idea of where he comes from. After all, it’s his Country too.
The rest of the story about Aaron Lewis isn’t so much about where he’s been, although that has a lot to do with it; it’s more about where he wants to be. “Sandcastles and fishing poles, what a way to save our souls” he sings in “Endless Summer”, the only song he wrote for the album that talks not so much about how life is, as how it should be. It’s a beautiful summer anthem about what a family can share, a soundtrack for what life can be like when everything’s alright.
Everything doesn’t always stay alright, though, not in real life. If things start to go wrong, you might have to stand up and do something about it, which is what the rest of the story is about. For that, though, you have to get back on the interstate.
Interstate 90 rolls into Springfield, Massachusetss coming west out of Boston or east from just about the whole rest of the country. There’s no telling how many tour buses have been down that road, although some of them head south on ninety-one to Hartford, where they have a lot of big shows, both Rock and Country. If you want to get to where Aaron Lewis calls home, though, this is where you have to get off the interstate and head north on the country roads. That’s the only way to get to a town called Worthington, where Aaron Lewis lives with his family; he and his wife Vanessa moved there because they wanted to be a part of a community where people know each other, and know how to look out for each other.
In 2010, the local school district that Worthington is a part of decided to close the R.H. Conwell elementary school, a decision that meant the young people of the community that the school had served for seven decades would be riding on buses of a very different kind, and riding on them for several hours each week. It was a situation that Lewis considered completely unacceptable. “The elementary school is what gives us the sense of community that we have in the town in the first place,” he says. “Without it, I wouldn’t know all of the parents, and I wouldn’t know all of the kids.” The decision to finally close the school came at the end of what he describes as “a long and arduous struggle” to save it, but that wasn’t the end of it, not as far as he was concerned.
“I don’t like to be told that I can’t do anything,” Lewis says, “Don’t tell me I can’t, because I will break myself to prove you wrong.” To keep the school open, he and Vanessa created a not-for-profit organization called the It Takes A Community Foundation, and began gathering the community support it would take to reopen the school independently. They leased the newly-vacant school building from the town, but that was just the beginning. “On July 31st we got the keys to the building, but when the school district closed the school, they emptied it of everything,” Lewis says. With the start of the next school year just a month away, time was incredibly tight, but they somehow managed to put it all together. “We refurnished, restocked, restaffed and reopened that school from July 31st to September 1st,” he recalls, “and the school has been open ever since.”
Since then, the It Takes A Community Foundation has expanded its horizons, with significant community and corporate support, not to mention the benefit concerts that Aaron Lewis puts together with his friends, some Rock, some Country. “ITACF was created to help revive rural communities across New England,” is the way the Foundation describes what they do. “We support initiatives that improve community life — particularly the lives of children — within rural areas.”
Lewis hopes the It Takes A Community Foundation will be able to build on their accomplishments at the R.H. Conwell school, because schools in communities like his are being closed in a lot of places. “I’d like to try to get it to the point where there’s enough awareness and enough support to start reopening rural schools that have been closed,” he says, looking forward. “When they close the local school, a lot that sense of community is just lost.” It’s a bold idea and a challenging goal, but it’s not really all that surprising. Once you get an idea of where Aaron Lewis comes from, it’s not all that surprising that he’d want to stand up for all of those kids in all of those communities. After all, it’s their country too.