Aaron Lewis revels in irony. The 44-year-old singer, who once appeared on the cover of High Times magazine holding a bong, arrives for an interview sporting a narcotics law-enforcement cap. Equally ironic is the fact that the frontman for the hard-rock group Staind just released one of the most country-sounding albums of the year. Titled Sinner, and produced by Buddy Cannon (Kenny Chesney), the record debuted at Number One on the Billboard Country Albums chart, knocking Jason Aldean's They Don't Know out of the top spot. All of this with minimal country-radio airplay of Sinner's lead single, "That Ain't Country." (Watch the video for the song below.)
Like the outspoken New Englander who wrote and performs it, the song takes aim at today's polished, sometimes vacuous, country music. Lewis introduced the song at a biker rally in Colorado earlier this month as his answer to those who are "choking all the life out of country music." But he didn't stop there: he named names, citing Luke Bryan, Sam Hunt and others for churning out material that, to his ears, wasn't in tune with the genre's roots.
Lewis eventually clarified his remarks on The Bobby Bones Show, but he refused to capitulate, digging in his boot heels about the definition of country. In a candid interview with Rolling Stone Country, Lewis further shares his thoughts on the format, the future of Staind and how Kid Rock reintroduced him to country classics.
To what do you attribute the success of Sinner?
I have a really loyal fan base. There can be speculations made on other things, but I'll let other people make those speculations.
Are some of those fans also Staind fans?
Yeah, I think there is some Staind crossover. And I think there are some people that love Staind that want nothing more than for me to come back to rock. And then there are people out there who want nothing more than for me to stop making music altogether. You just can't make everybody happy.
With Sinner, it's clear that you're a dyed-in-the-wool disciple of outlaw country and twang.
I'm old enough to remember and appreciate the country music that defined the genre. I skipped everything else. I stopped listening to country around the time that Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton were taking over. And I was able to choose the music I wanted to listen to, and as most kids do, I rebelled against the music I was forced to listen to as a kid. That took me down a road of having being lucky enough to have a career in rock music. But that doesn't change the fact that country music was the first music I ever heard. It doesn't mean it's not the soundtrack to every good memory that I have as a child. So that's the country music that I'm calling on, that is in my soul. I don't know the other country music. I don't recognize what fills up a lot of the airwaves on country radio as anything that came from the country music that I grew up on.
How did you reacquaint yourself with the music you heard as a kid?
Through the ultimate rebel, Kid Rock. I was spending many nights without sleep on his tour bus and we were listening to all this classic country. And every song that would come on had a memory from my childhood attached to it. Once that happened, I really couldn't escape the inevitable, which is where we are now.
Sinner's first single "That Ain't Country" makes clear your view of today's popular country songs.
I'm not saying they're not good songs, I'm not saying they're not catchy. I'm not saying that I'm not stuck just like everybody else singing them all day if I hear them earlier in the day. That's not what I'm saying. I'm simply questioning the connection between that and the music that defined the genre.
Is that disconnect more in the sound or the lyrics?
It's the sound and it's the lack of meaningful heartfelt lyrics. It's a lot of the same thing. There are times where I've sat there listening to the radio and a song by five different artists plays on the radio and the song never changes. Like to the point where I know that the program directors have to be careful of putting particular artists back to back, because they sound so much alike. It's a long slippery slope of a conversation and I've teetered on that slope about as much as I'd like to.
We heard a program director once called you "too country"…
A program director? My first time around, it was one of the most popular things I heard. For Town Line and The Road. They loved the record and thought it was one of the countriest records they heard that year, but they couldn't play it because it was too country.
There is some irony there.
Yes, but also in the way that you're a rock singer who is making country that can't be played on country radio. Which, it can be argued, is the home of rock today. As you say, the songs on country radio all sound the same, and we can draw the parallel back to when that was happening in the late Eighties and early Nineties, pre-Nirvana.
Sure. It happens in cycles with every genre. When the music that is popular in culture pushes the limits too far from the core of what defined the genre, it always snaps back like a rubber band and goes back to more roots-driven material. Then slowly but surely it goes further and further away from its roots until it gets to that point where it has to snap back again. It's with every genre, even pop, even Top 40.
But you have to be around long enough to recognize it.
Yeah. I've had a record deal for almost 20 years.
Your lyrics on Sinner are often dark and introspective. Is that the way you prefer to write?
I've always written from that vulnerable place and really put things out there that most people wouldn't. I learned that there is really no topic that you can't write or sing about or express, from Jonathan [Davis], the lead singer of Korn. Hearing that first Korn record hit me like a freight train, and I cried at the end. I love that man with all my heart. He is my grandfather in the music business, because they found Limp Bizkit and Limp Bizkit found us, so I guess in some way that makes him my grandfather. But that's how I've always written. I have to try much harder to write a song like "Endless Summer" than I do to write a song like "I Lost It All" or "Sinner." As weird as it may sound, my comfort zone is writing about the things that are deep and dark and torturous.
You called into The Bobby Bones Show recently to explain your comments about those who were "choking the life out of country." But Bones did credit you for having an opinion in an industry that often doesn't share opinions.
I would like to think that all of these amazing songwriters that are collected here in Nashville would really rather not be churning out one homogenized mediocre song after another. I don't think they want to be doing that. I think they're doing what they need to do. It's one big vicious circle and it's nobody's fault. I don't think it's the industry's fault, radio's fault, the artists' fault. I think the fault lies in the combination of all three, and everybody being afraid to voice their opinion.
So is Staind on hiatus?
We haven't broken up. I have no interest or creative need to go there right now. I'm pretty focused on [country music] and I'm not going anywhere. This is what feels right at this point in my life. Do I think there's room somewhere down the road for Staind to play shows in the summertime, radio festivals and stuff like that? Sure. Do I think I have another one of those records in me? Of course I do. All I have to do is live.