When Rodney Atkins, a singer-songwriter who’s released six No. 1 singles, started playing music during high school in Cumberland Gap, Tenn., bluegrass, at least on the performance side of things, dominated the local music scene.
“I was just sitting on front porches playing guitar with friends,” Atkins said. “You learn two or three chords and the next thing you know you’re playing Marshall Tucker or Charlie Daniels songs. But it all sounded bluegrass.”
At first, Atkins was too shy to sing in front of people.
“I sang by myself, but I always loved that feeling of playing music with your friends,” he said.
Loving music so much might have cost Atkins his first girlfriend.
“Her dad and her little brother played guitar,” he remembered. “I wound up spending more time playing with them on the front porch.”
The urge to write songs hit Atkins shortly after he picked up a guitar. That desire followed him south to Tennessee Tech University in Cookeville. He occupied himself primarily with playing college baseball and writing songs.
“My college notebooks, the margins are full of song ideas,” he said. “It was like I couldn’t stop writing songs.”
Time proved that Atkins was on to something good. In addition to his No. 1 singles and multiple gold and platinum record awards, he’s won three BMI song of the year awards. BMI tracks broadcasts and performances of songs for the purpose of distributing royalties to composers.
“My songs haven’t always been in the running for a lot of the awards but, when it comes down to how many times the songs get played, it’s a thrill to know that I’ve got something out there that has really permeated society. People know the songs.”
During Atkins’ early days at Curb Records, the label’s senior vice president of A&R (artists and repertoire), the late Phil Gernhard, took the young singer-songwriter under his wing. A music industry veteran, Gernhard’s credits included Maurice Williams & the Zodiacs’ “Stay,” Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” the Bellamy Brothers’ “Let Your Love Flow” and Hank Williams, Jr.’s Family Tradition.
“Phil built the point home that songs are bigger than the artist,” Atkins said. “You want a song that people can relate to. And they don’t care who sings it. It’s what the song says.”
Atkins takes a cinematic approach to songs.
“If you’re watching a great movie, you get lost in it,” he said. “You don’t think about the lightning or the acting. You don’t even realize that you’re watching a movie. A great song can do that to you also. You don’t realize you’re listening to a song, you’re just inside of it.”
Atkins took time out at the end of last year to reflect upon the 10th anniversary of his album debut, Honesty, and the time between its release and the arrival of his second album, 2006’s If You’re Going Through Hell.
“Honesty did its thing and went away,” he said. “I remember being in the spot of ‘I don’t know what we’re gonna do.’ It took a whole lot of faith during that time and a lot of perseverance. But I’m really thankful that those are some my career’s defining years. But there was never any question of, ‘Is it gonna happen?’ It was, ‘You just got to keep working hard.’ ”