15 Minutes (Of Fame): What Happened To Rodney Atkins?

Image From Sounds Like Nashville

Sometimes, it’s harder to find people that you can’t blame than people you can.

Rodney Atkins’s main connection to Kyle’s Korner is his 2018 single “Caught Up In The Country,” one of the worst songs I’ve had the misfortune of reviewing since starting the blog. By that point, Atkins had been irrelevant in country music for nearly a decade, and in truth his mainstream career was relatively short and generally unimpressive. However, Atkins brief mid-2000s peak (read: his breakthrough album If You’re Going Through Hell) was so high that his memory has been surprising resilient to the ravages of time, leading Nick to wonder how it all went wrong:

After examining Atkins’s career, it’s hard to settle on a single reason as to why his career seemed to end prematurely. Instead, it was a confluence on factors that kneecapped him early and often, and everyone involved has a few spots of blood on their hands.

Suspect #1: Father Time

Nashville is a young man’s town, and while certain artists (Eddy Arnold, George Strait, etc.) seem to last forever, very few successful artists do so with a late start (unless they are coming off of a successful career in another genre, such as Darius Rucker). Consider the age of the solo artists we’ve featured up to this point at the time their major-label debut albums were released:

Artist Age (years)
Josh Turner 25
Brad Paisley 26
Toby Keith 31
Joe Nichols 25
Gary Allen 28
Lee Ann Womack 30
Randy Travis 27
Average Age 27.43

Atkins signed with Curb Records in either 1996 or 1997 (the sources cited on Wikipedia disagree), but while he released a pair of singles soon afterwards, neither of them left any impact on the charts, and he had to wait until 2002 to release another single and until 2003 before “Honesty” generated enough buzz to warrant an album release. Atkins was already 34 by that point, and it would be another two years before he truly broke through with If You’re Going Through Hell. (In comparison, a 28-year-old  Jason Aldean would release a self-titled disc the year before, and a 31-year-old Luke Bryan would drop I’ll Stay Me a year later.) This put Atkins at a distinct disadvantage relative to his peers: While artists like Aldean, Bryan, and Blake Shelton were able to create enough staying power to rock comfortably into their early forties, Atkins was 40 before he could even get his sophomore album out the door. By getting such a late start launching his career, Atkins was not able to amass the support he needed before the genre started looking to put him out to pasture.

Suspect #2: Mike Curb

Curb Records chairman Mike Curb is known for yanking the chain of artists like Tim McGraw and Jo Dee Messina, but when it comes to Rodney Atkins, Curb seems to have had the opposite problem. He gave Atkins a ton of leash early in his career, allowing him to switch producers and giving him a ton of flexibility when putting together his first album:

“[Curb] told me if I wanted to record 20 songs and mix them 30 times, that’s what I needed to do…He said I was capable of making a phenomenal country album and whatever the label needed to do to support that, that’s what would happen.”  Atkins, as told to Deborah Evans Price in 2003

Flexibility is all well and good, but waiting five years in between single releases cost Atkins valuable time that he needed to build name recognition and radio relationships early in his career.

Later on, a recent quote from Atkins hinted that the side of Curb that my fellow Kyle over at Saving Country Music has been ranting about for years eventually made an appearance:

“I hit this place while I was writing and I quit trying to chase what I thought the label wanted me to do…This was early in the process, about 2014 when I really started digging in and writing every day. I’m not attempting to write ditties at all and you have to work harder because you really want to add something to the format.”  Atkins, as told to Deborah Evans Price in 2019 (emphasis added)

“The biggest difference with this record is I personally spent time on these songs as the song mechanic; working on stuff and trying different things…I have more input in this record sonically than I’ve had in the past and I let my imagination out to play a little bit more.”  Atkins, as told to Mike Thiel in 2018 (emphasis added)

Curb did one of two things wrong here: Either he tried to push Atkins in a direction Atkins didn’t want to go, or he once again gave Atkins the freedom to slow-walk his album release (almost eight years passed between Take A Back Road and Caught Up In The Country). Heck, he might have done both!

Atkins remains a Curb artist to this day, and he experienced none of the label instability that Toby Keith or Little Big Town did. Given what Curb allowed Atkins to do with that relationship, however, perhaps he would have been better off with a different boss.

Suspect #3: Bro-Country

Rodney Atkins may have peaked with If You’re Going Through Hell, but he did manage to earn a pair of #1 hits in the years that followed (“It’s America” and “Take A Back Road”). It’s pretty clear, however, that his career hit a hard wall in the early 2010s, which was about the time that Bro-Country hit the genre like a tidal wave. Bro-Country has already been implicated in the death of several other careers we’ve examined, so could it have been an accessory to yet another homicide here?

There’s probably a few kernels of truth in this argument. Sonically, Atkins’s previous singles are a far cry from the heavy, hard-rock guitars and synthetic percussion that defined the Bro era. He dabbles in the dark arts a bit with 2012’s “Just Wanna Rock N’ Roll,” but while its sound and cadence lean in the Bro direction, it’s still a step or three behind songs like “Cruise” and “Dirt Road Anthem.” (Call it a softcore version of Bro-Country.) He never truly embraced the movement until “Caught Up In The Country” (and his career was effectively over long before then), so it’s not a stretch to think he may have been cast aside in favor of a trendy new sound.

Thematically, however, Atkins had never been known for singing terribly novel songs. He was a proud member of the “I’m so country!” crowd, releasing multiple songs along these lines (“These Are My People,” “It’s America,” “Take A Back Road,” and even “Farmer’s Daughter” to a degree). Party tracks weren’t really his forte (neither “15 Minutes” nor “Just Wanna Rock N’ Roll” went terribly far), but he could be as formulaic as any Bro-Country artist of the era when he wanted to be. Something tells me he could have adapted to the changing landscape had he wanted or needed to.

Suspect #4: Rodney Atkins

Image from E! News

In hindsight, Rodney Atkins was certainly not the greatest advocate for his own career. Waiting for-freaking-ever between releases is one thing, but there’s also something else that might explain that “hard wall in the early 2010s” he hit.

Two months after Take A Back Road hit the streets in 2011, Atkins was arrested for domestic assault after his then-wife Tammy claimed he attempted to smother her with a pillow and grabbed her by the face to throw her down the hallway.” Atkins denied the charges and was eventually cleared of them, but only after he “voluntarily underwent court ordered anger management, alcohol and drug use assessments.”

There are two points of interest here:

  • In digging through Atkins’s backstory, I’ve found no indication of excessive alcohol or drug use (he even declared “I don’t drink” in 2019). Still, these aren’t the sort of assessments a court would throw at someone who appeared to be clean and sober, so I’m left wondering if Atkins was wrestling with some demons in the past, and if so for how long.
  • Deep-seeded issues or not, these are not the sort of headlines that are conducive to album sales or radio promotions, so it’s likely Take A Back Road took a backseat when these allegations surfaced. “He’s Mine,” a single that dropped a month before the arrest, only made it #23, and no single since then has cracked the Top 20.

Then again, Sam Hunt’s recent DUI hasn’t slowed his success any, so maybe this was  just a minor blip on Atkins’s radar. (Correlation does not imply causation, after all.) Still, the timing of this incident and his subsequent fall from grace on the airwaves is worth noting.

Conclusions

Add it all up, and it’s clear that no one in this case is walking away with clean hands. Atkins got a late start on radio, then wasted a ton of time between album releases, and eventually got caught between legal issues and genre trends in the early 2010s that brought his career to a premature close.

I don’t use the word “prematurely” lightly here. Atkins put six tracks in Country Aircheck’s “Top 100 Songs of Our Decade (2006-2016),” including all four of his singles from If You’re Going Through Hell (“Watching You” earned the #1 spot). There’s a reason people still remember Atkins today: He released some really popular songs that resonated long after their charting days were through. That kind of success and connection with his audience makes me think that he could have squeezed at least another five or six good years out of his career had he and the other responsible parties made some better decisions along the way.

Short of a time machine, however, no one can correct the mistakes of Atkins’s past. It’s one thing to leave an audience wanting more, but it’s another to never actually give them the more they want. It’s yet another example of an inconvenient truth: In Nashville, no one is remembered forever, and time is never on your side.

Song Review: Rodney Atkins, “Thank God For You”

Is this good? No…but when you’ve hit rock bottom, I suppose you have to start somewhere.

Rodney Atkins’s last single “Caught Up In The Country” made him perhaps the biggest villain in country music last year: Not only was the track absolutely atrocious and just missed being named the worst song of 2018, but his label kept the song artificially afloat on the charts for fifty-seven weeks, setting a new record for longevity despite the fact that no one wanted to hear it (it peaked at a lousy #21). There’s no easy way to rebound from a track like that (and it’s probably impossible to do with one song), but Atkins has now returned to try to make amends with “Thank God For You,” the second single from his highly-unacclaimed album Caught Up In The Country. The song is safe, trendy, generic, and forgettable, but it’s not the tire fire that “Caught Up In The Country” was, and that’s better than nothing.

The production is the most interesting part of the song, as it comes across with a harder edge than you might expect (even if it feels a bit overproduced at times). The song opens with a growly guitar borrowed from Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene,” leaves an amplified acoustic guitar to cover the first verse, then brings in an organ and a punchy drum set pump up the volume for the chorus. (The producer drops in some slicker electric guitar riffs and a background choir jump in the song’s later moments, but they seem unnecessary and don’t add a ton to the song’s vibe.) As a result, the song has a lot more drive and energy than other songs in this lane (Chris Stapleton’s “Tennessee Whiskey” covers a similar storyline, but has the exact opposite sound and vibe). The instruments may not always be bright, the the overall mood is upbeat and optimistic, reflecting the redemption that the narrator has found at the hands of their partner. It’s a welcome take on a tired topic, and makes good use the country-rock sound without falling into the pop/EDM trap that Atkins’s last single did.

The “by-gosh country boy” act that Atkins tried to sell on his last single fits a little bit better this time around, but he still feels a little out of place as a reformed James Dean wannabe here. His technical skills remain sharp even at his “advanced” age (in fact, when I play this back to back with something like “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before The Devil Even Knows)”, I think he sounds better now), and he’s reached a point in his career where a retrospective look at his life feels believable and even expected (even if he’s not imparting any life lessons beyond “find a good woman and settle down”). However, while he’s always had a decent amount of earnestness and charisma that helps him sell a story, the narrator’s youthful, rebellious perspective is a bit of a departure from his past work, and it’s a bit hard to picture the guy from “Watching You” as an edgy, headstrong punk-rocker. It’s a solid performance overall, but one that’s not as easy to believe as some of his past work.

The writing tells the story of an ex-rebellious drifter (with plenty of attitude and a distinct lack of a plan) who is celebrating the special someone that saved them from themselves and made them walk the straight and narrow path. It’s a trope as old as country music itself (think Johnny and June, Waylon and Jessi, George and Nancy, etc.), and this take doesn’t offer anything that we haven’t already before. The verses are nothing more than a laundry list describing a social outcast pulled right out of central casting, and the hook and chorus make heavy use of the religious imagery that was a mini-trend in the genre not long ago, making it feel even less unique than usual. (Aside from the inspired “dance you away from the devil” line, the overall writing is fairly bland and predictable.) Add it all up, and you’ve got a less-than-catchy tale that the audience isn’t all that enthused about hearing, and neither Atkins nor his producer can change their minds.

“Thank God For You” is basically radio filler as it stands now, with its interesting production choices countered by its uninteresting lyrics and a less-than-ideal fit for Rodney Atkins himself. While it’s still better than “Caught Up In The Country” by leaps and bounds, I hesitate to call it a great (or even good) song, especially considering the icons that have walked this path before. In the end, you won’t mind hearing it when it plays, but you won’t remember hearing it when it’s over.

Rating: 5/10. Don’t go out of your way to hear this one.

Song Review: Rodney Atkins ft. The Fisk Jubilee Singers, “Caught Up In The Country”

Remember when Thomas Rhett floated the idea of his dad Rhett making a comeback on Life Changes? Suddenly, that idea doesn’t seem so farfetched.

The latest trend in country music appears to be the comeback, as a whole bunch of older, mostly-forgotten artists have suddenly reappeared to try to reestablish their relevance and popularity, with varying degrees of success. In the last year or so, we’ve seen Garth Brooks, Shania Twain, Alan Jackson, Willie Nelson, David Lee Murphy, Sugarland, and even Taylor Swift come out of mothballs to release new singles and remind folks that they still exist. While this behavior is not new or necessarily bad (Jackson and Nelson, for example, released some of the best singles I’ve heard this year), these songs tend to fall flat when an artist tries to update their classic style to make them sound trendy and hip (see: Twain and Murphy). The latest offender is Rodney Atkins, an artist who had a brief run of success in the late 2000s, but who hadn’t really been heard from in the last six or seven years. He resurfaced recently to team up with the historic Fisk Jubilee Singers to release “Caught Up In The Country,” and ugh, this might be the worst of the bunch. It’s a poorly-written, poorly-executed, awkward-sounding mess that is neither interesting nor meaningful.

Things go off the rails from the word go, as the song opens with a boring synthetic beat and a melody-carrying guitar that sounds more like a MIDI instrument than a real one. Some piano and steel guitar stabs are tossed randomly into the background (eventually a token banjo shows up too), and the choruses add more drums and volume so suddenly (a brief beat drop followed by a wall of noise) that the track starts to sound like a Chainsmokers album cut reject. I can’t stress enough just how synthetic this song sounds (nothing irritates me more than a song that claims to celebrate “country” with a mix this urban and synthetic), the frequent minor chords nullify whatever positive vibes the song tries to generate, and it doesn’t even try to complement the writing. The atmosphere is best described as incoherent and inconsistent, as the song bounces from kinda-generic country song to rave-ready dance track to church choir clap-along for no real reason. It’s nothing more than empty sonic calories,  and whoever produced this monstrosity should never be allowed to touch a mixing board ever again.

Atkins proved himself to be a capable, charismatic performer on songs like “Watching You” and “Cleaning This Gun,” and there are a few things to like about his delivery here. For example, his flow is decent (and a lot better than I would have predicted), and he does a tolerable job maintaining a consistent delivery across the inconsistent production. Three things, however, prove to be his undoing here:

  • The key is way too low for his voice, making him sound raspy and toneless during parts of the verses.
  • The second verse opens with talk-singing (because of course there’s freaking talk-singing here), which compounds the low-key issue and makes my ears hurt whenever I hear it.
  • The slick, synthetic percussion make Atkins’s claims of being a tried-and-true country boy sound hollow and unconvincing. After all, nothing screams “caught up in the country” like an uptempo EDM beat, right?)

As much as Atkins wants to show you he’s a by-gosh country boy, the only thing he looks like here is a trend-hopping sell-out. (As for the Fisk Jubilee Singers, they sound indistinguishable from a generic studio choir and add nothing of interest to the track.)

And then we have the lyrics…good grief, where do I even begin with these? Let’s start with the opening lines, which you can also find in the dictionary under the term “laundry list”:

Square bales, flatbeds
Clotheslines, sunsets
Sky blue, barn red
Wind chimes, front porch
Good dogs, wood floors
Work boots, open doors

It doesn’t get any better from here, as the imagery is beyond generic (Creek bends! Fields of gold! John Deere green!) and the song never progresses beyond the narrator making vague “I love the country!” statements. (Did it really require three songwriters to write this drivel?) It’s not clever, it’s not interesting, and compared to other fluffy summer tracks like “Winnebago” and “Outta Style,” it’s not even fun. It’s just a lousy excuse for a country song.

How bad is “Caught Up In The Country”? It’s “worst song I’ve heard this year” bad. It’s “I’d rather listen to LoCash or Jake Owen” bad. It’s “most visceral reaction I’ve had to a song since Dustin Lynch’s last single” bad. With its awkward and aimless production, lazy songwriting, and Rodney Atkins’s subpar vocal performance, this song has earned its place alongside Owen, Lynch, and Jordan Davis in my Hall of Infamy.

Rating: 2/10. Yuck.