For Grammy-winning Christian rocker Mac Powell, country music wasn’t just a creative itch that needed scratching.
“Two years ago, I made my first [country] record and a lot of people thought, ‘He’s got it out of his system now,'” Powell tells Rolling Stone Country, “but all that did was make me want to do it even more.”
And thus was born Southpaw, the singer’s follow up to his 2012 self-titled country debut. The 12-song set, released October 14th, includes co-writes with country hitmakers Darius Rucker, Kristian Bush and Travis Tritt. It’s arguably a natural transition for the bearded, long-haired Alabama native with a penchant for musical storytelling. Yet certainly not a permanent one. In his other life, the father of five is one of the most awarded artists in Christian rock music. For more than two decades, he’s been the lead vocalist and principal songwriter of the Christian band Third Day. The band has won four Grammys, 24 Gospel Music Association Dove Awards and are members of the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Third Day is still together; Powell is just continuing to pursue what’s been a longtime career goal.
“I grew up listening to country music,” says the musician, whose family moved from Clanton, Alabama, to Atlanta when he was a teen. “I’m from the south, so you’re surrounded by it whether you like it or not. But fortunately I do like it a lot, and I always have. I’ve wanted to do [country music] for a long time. I put it off for many years because of time and fears, all sorts of different reasons, but I finally got to a point where I couldn’t put it off any longer. I was already looking back going, ‘Man I wish I had done this five years ago.'”
In recent years, there’s been a lot of genre hopping as rockers like Rucker and Sheryl Crow have made their mark in country music. Coming from the Christian community, however, is a different situation as fans can sometimes be a little more possessive of faith-based artists and critical of anything they consider too worldly. But Powell says he’s received very little backlash. “You’re always going to get that, but thankfully it’s been miniscule,” he relates. “There’s just one person every once in a while who will say something. The other day, this guy was tweeting me saying, ‘Mac, you were in such-and-such city. Did you play in a bar? Tell me you did not play in a bar.’ I said, ‘I did. And if you don’t like that, there’s a worship record coming out in March. You’ll enjoy that.'”
Powell is appreciative of the support of his Christian fans, but knows country music isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. “That’s the great thing about it,” he says. “If people don’t like what I’m doing, I say, ‘You know what? Just put it on pause and wait a few months and you’ll be satisfied with the Third Day stuff.'”
Though there are some people who feel Christian values aren’t synonymous with today’s country music, Powell says that’s not necessarily the case. “If you were to ask someone who doesn’t listen to country music: ‘What is country music about?’ they would probably tell you, ‘Well it’s about drinking and cheating,'” Powell says, but he’s quick to defend the genre. “Yes, there’s always been those songs, but that’s not the majority of what’s talked about in country music. Nowadays on the radio what’s big is some of that, but I don’t feel that that means Christian values have left country music. They’re definitely still there. You hear those [Christian values] in great records like the Eric Paslay record, and I could go down the list. So I don’t think it’s left at all. I think it’s just a little bit more in the background than it has been in the past few years. I’m confident that it will surface again.”
In writing songs for Southpaw, Powell collaborated with some of his favorite country artists, including Travis Tritt who co-wrote two songs,”90 to Nothing” and “Runaway Train,” with Powell and his producer, Jason Hoard. “I’ve always loved Travis Tritt and his music,” says Powell. “People say all the time, ‘Hey you sound a little bit like Travis Tritt.’ What they don’t realize is if I were to sit in a room with Travis and we both sing, he’d blow me out of the water. He’s so good. He’s an amazing singer and musician. We had dinner a while back and talked about writing. So when it came time to be in the studio, I just said, ‘I know you’re busy, but we’re going to be in the studio for a couple of days if you want to come hang out and work on some songs with us.’ So he came in for two days and helped write and played on the record.”
Powell says he connected with Tritt initially via Twitter, and that’s also how he and Rucker got to know each other. “A lot of people I meet on Twitter. It’s a great connector,” he says. “Darius and I had some mutual fans; Travis Tritt was the same way, and Krisian Bush was the same way. It was all through Twitter. Some fans said, ‘Hey you guys should do something together.’ And I said, ‘I’m game.’ And Darius said, ‘Well, I’m ready.’ So then we started direct messaging each other and Darius said, ‘We should write sometime.’ And I said, ‘Absolutely, when are you available? I’ll drive to Charleston if you want me to.'”
Powell made the trip to Rucker’s native Charleston, and their creative connection was immediate and fruitful. “We wrote two songs in two hours. Musically we see eye-to-eye,” says Powell, who included one of the Rucker collaborations, “Hard Headed Woman” on the album.
“Kristian Bush helped me, too. He’s in Atlanta so we run into each other every once in a while. I had a song for the first record called ‘Everything to Me,’ but it wasn’t ready. I could have finished it, but I needed to let it simmer for a little bit. So I presented that idea to him and he did a great job helping me finish that.”
Powell wrote or co-wrote every cut on the album with the exception of the Chris Stapleton/Barry Bales penned “Sittin’ Here Talking With You.” Powell co-wrote seven tracks with Hoard, his longtime friend and producer, and songwriter Heath Balltzglier contributes to three songs. The album closes with a country cover of the classic Third Day hit “I’ve Always Loved You.” “I’ve done it live with my country band, and always thought it would be cool to re-do this one day,” Powell shares. “And when I wrote with the Band Perry a few months ago, they said, ‘We love ‘I’ve Always Loved You.’ It’s totally a country song. You should re-do it.’ That confirmation made me record it again. When people ask me in interviews, ‘What’s your favorite Third Day song?’ I always say that one, so to be able to do that on a country record was cool for me.”
In recording with Third Day, Powell is signed to Provident Music Group, which is Sony’s Christian division. In releasing his country music, Powell has taken the independent route. “I’m not afraid of labels or to be on a label and have a handful of people help push me,” he says. “But that’s not really my goal. My goal is to make great music and to get it out in front of people. If it happens down the road that a label is part of that, then great, but my job is not to be on a label. My job is to make great music and play it for people. Everything will take care of itself.”
Powell admits one of his concerns in embarking on a second career was time and how he’d manage to juggle additional recording and touring alongside his commitment to Third Day and most importantly, his family. He credits his wife Aimee with making things easier. “A big part is having a super mom at home,” he says. “[She has] the trust and the faith in me to know that this is something that I need to do, and she’s holding down the fort. For us, it’s an investment in our time, our finances, our work to try to grow this thing. She’s a big believer in it, so that’s really what keeps me going is having Aimee be a strong woman behind me and helping to support me in it.”
Powell has wanted to sing country music since he was a child singing with his family at outdoor gatherings by the lake. “Alabama was a big influence on me. That was the band I aspired to because I loved their songs and their playing and their harmonies. When I was a kid I also listened to Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Ronnie Milsap, and of course Johnny Cash and Willie Nelson are huge inspirations to me,” says the man who named his son Johnny Cash Powell.
Like many teenagers, he formed a rock band in high school. That band evolved into Third Day, and he’s grateful for the success he’s had with longtime members Tai Anderson, David Carr and Makr Lee, but these days he’s excited about stepping out solo and being part of the country community he’s admired for so long.
“There’s a lot of passion in country music,” he says. “I love the storytelling. I love the place that people are coming from and the honesty that’s in it. It’s so unlike other genres in that it does seem more real — the stories that people tell, the situations that people talk about — it just seems more realistic than other genres. That’s not to take away from anything from Christian music. Of course, I love Christian music. I still make it and it’s such a strong part of my life. But in Christian music you almost always talk about the good side. You don’t talk about the bad side and the realities of life sometimes. That comes through so much in country music.”