For country music star, Rodney Atkins, trucks, tractors and driving are just part of the fabric of his life. So is music, and sometimes both get intertwined. Atkins writes and sings about everyday life, about family and persevering through hard times. Many of his songs involve driving and his lyrics paint pictures of the feeling one gets out on the open road. We had a chance to speak to him a little bit about his career, what he’s been up to lately, and his love for a particular make of truck.
What is your first recollection of being around cars or trucks?
My first recollection of vehicles would have been actually, probably, tractors to be honest with you. My dad grew up farming, I don’t know I was when I started riding with him. He had a little Massey-Ferguson that he would just bush hog and do stuff on. I would ride with him and he would teach me, let me drive with the steering wheel. Then, as things used to happen like that back in the day, my dad would let me sit on his lap to drive. We lived in the country so there wasn’t a whole lot of traffic. He always had those old, knock-around pick-up trucks. It was tractors and old trucks really.
Do you remember the car you learned to drive in?
It was a pick-up truck for sure. Before I could really help, they would be out hauling hay and they would let me drive. I would steer and keep the throttle really low on the tractor because I was hauling the flat bed. That’s how I started driving.
What was the very first car or truck you owned?
Oh yeah. The very first vehicle that I had was 1976 International Scout. I loved that thing; I beat it to death. It was just old, white and probably wouldn’t go over 45 miles per hour. Absolutely loved that thing. Lots of great memories with that truck. I had an old bird dog name Duke and I would take him grouse hunting and he would run back and forth on those old logging roads where I would hunt, and I would just follow him.
How did your interest in music come about?
My dad directed choirs when I was growing up, so I was always around people singing in that capacity. I was always too shy to sing in front of anybody, but I loved music. Then, when I got in high school, I started playing guitar a little bit. There was a girl I started dating in high school and her whole family were just incredible musicians. We’d go over there, and it would just be people showing up with all kinds of instruments on the front porch, that’s the first way I started playing music actually. They just handed me a guitar, taught me chords and playing blue grass music on front porches.
Does your love of cars and trucks help your song writing?
Yeah, it seems like I write about them quite a bit. Take a back road, that’s a driving song. One of the things that happened when I showed up to shoot the video for Going Through Hell, they had a vehicle wrangler that has access to different vehicles. We showed up for that video and they had 3 or 4 really cool, old muscle cars and they had this really cool 1972 Scout sitting there. I said ‘oh man, I’ve got to drive that. I haven’t seen one of those in a long time.’ That became my vehicle for the video. When we went to do the next video for a song called Watching You, it required me to be driving, have my kid in the car so I asked if we could use that Scout again. They contacted that guy and got the Scout and that’s what we used for that video too. Then, when the song Watching You went #1, at the party they gave me the keys to that Scout. Now I own that Scout and I’m rebuilding it now.
What is it about cars and trucks that inspires so many musicians to write and sing about them?
It’s freedom man. It’s what this country is built on, it’s what we love. Those cars represent from when we’re young and go with our first girlfriend, it’s about taking off on some back roads or cross country. I think it’s all about freedom.
You recently did a Concert In Your Car due to Corona Virus. Tell me a little bit about how that came about and what was it like to perform without that traditional live audience close by?
Ya, it was a trip. They [the fans] weren’t that far away. I was contacted by the promoter about a year or so ago, we talked about doing some stuff together. He got a hold of me in April and asked if he tried to do one of those drive-in concerts, would I be interested. I said ‘heck yeah, love to.’ It was in southern California. Basically, it’s a round stage, cars are packed in as many as they can. I could go around the stage, but they had jumbotrons above the stage as well. The audio comes to them through an FM station, everyone has it cranked up through their vehicles. It was a trip because you don’t have normal front of the house sound because you can’t hear the people as well. But they were singing as loud as they could, and they honked their horns instead of clapping [laughing]. It was a blast, a much-needed distraction for everybody. We’ll probably do some more.
Do You have any new projects you’re working on?
Back a few months ago I was asked to be a part of this thing with a lot of entertainers. It was an event called The Call to UNITE; 24 hours of people around the world reaching out while we were in lock down. We did a song, my wife and I, and we sang a song for that and wound up doing a little video of that performance and put it up on Facebook, where it went viral. So, the record label approached us about doing an EP together. We write together all the time anyhow so we’re working on a project together. We’re writing every day and recording.
You named your youngest son Scout after the first vehicle you ever drove. Tell me more about how you convinced your wife to go along with it?
She was resistant to it the entire time she was pregnant. To the point if someone asked what are you going to name it, she would tell them ‘we haven’t decided yet.’ I challenged her to beat it, come up with a better name. It was crazy, when he was born, after she recovered a little bit, she said ‘his name is Scout, he looks like a Scout, it’s perfect.’ She just fell in love with it from that moment forward. But she was resistant the whole time up to then.
If I were to open the door to your personal garage at home, what would I find in there?
Besides the Scout, I’ve got a 2015 lifted Toyota Tundra and a Honda ATV. That’s what’s in there now. And a treadmill.
What’s your everyday driver?
The Tundra. My wife hates it, she’s gotta climb up into it and she says it rides rough. It’s just big.
Do you have any favorite destinations or roads you like to go for a drive on? Any roads you avoid at all costs?
Sure, we’re not far from Natchez Trace. That’s a fun ride. I go back and forth to some family in Cookeville, which is 90 miles east of Nashville. I always love taking Highway 70 instead of getting on the Interstate. That’s a nice little ride. I like to avoid the Interstate sometimes.
What do you do to get away from the hustle and bustle of the music industry?
Having two kids under the age of 3 keeps you pretty darn busy! We love the beach, even if it’s just rolling down to the 30A area, Destin, Florida. We just love the beach.
Any final thoughts?
Just want to leave you with a great story. I had a conversation with Kevin Costner several years ago. And he was so complimentary of my music. He described it to me, and I never thought of it this way until he mentioned it, he said ‘you sing songs to the rural heart.’ I asked him how’s that? He then told me, ‘The rural heart is if your car breaks down in Iowa you can pretty much walk up to any house and they’re going to help you. By the same token, if you’re in downtown New York City and you ask a complete stranger how you get to 56th and 3rd or something, people will bend over backwards to help you out. That’s what we love about this country, the rural heart. It’s spread out all over this country, rural towns and big cities. That’s who you’re singing to.’
Thank you, Rodney, for sharing some great stories and letting us share in your love of trucks and driving. We’ll be sure to check out your next Concert in a Car, we’ll be the ones in a 1972 Scout.