What Matters Most

Country music star Rodney Atkins sits down for an interview and talks about his family, science projects and why hard-working people are the subjects of his songs.

By Craig Miller & Jim Paddock

Atkins opens up in an exclusive FarmLife interview.

Atkins opens up in an exclusive FarmLife interview.

FarmLife: Where did you grow up?

Rodney Atkins: I grew up in Cumberland Gap and Harrogate, Tenn., right where Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia all come together.

FL: Tell us a little bit about that area.

RA: It was cool because of that sense of community. For instance, it was a legitimate excuse to get out of school, like the whole basketball team I played on, to go and help somebody on our team, help their family grade tobacco. And we could go work and do that, help each other out. We did that stuff a lot.

FL: Is it true you were an orphan?

RA: Yeah. From what I understand I was born in Knoxville and then I was put in a children’s home called Holston Home for Children. I was adopted by a couple of different parents, taken home, then, brought back to the orphanage. It doesn’t make sense a lot of times, but I think you wind up where you’re suppose to be. My parents are just good people, and I’m very lucky that I had them in my life to guide me and say a lot of prayers for me along the way.

FL: Tell us a little bit about your parents.

RA: Margaret and Allen Atkins. My mom grew up in Middlesboro, Ky. Her dad was a coal miner, and my dad grew up on a farm near Washburn, Tenn., where they raised cattle. They worked hauling hay, feeding the hogs—all that good stuff.

FL: Did his family still own the farm by the time you came along?

RA: Yes. When I was a kid, he used to take me out there to make sure I got a good handle on that kind of work. And we’d go out and do everything from vaccinating cattle to, you know, cutting down little cedar trees that grow everywhere.

That’s where I learned how to work. There’s something about looking back on the day after you put in that much time and work, with your family out there. It was just a great feeling.

FL: Did your parents own any land?

RA: Oh yeah. It was my dad’s dream. Where we grew up, he had some property so there was a lot of mowing and bush hogging and that sort of stuff.

FL: Did your dad have a tractor?

RA: Yes, he did. He had a little cub Massey Ferguson that he just absolutely loved.

FL: Was that tractor your father owned one of the reasons you chose to work with Massey Ferguson?

RA: Yeah. Honestly, I’ve driven their tractors and I know every time I’ve dealt with a Massey Ferguson product, whether it’s a tractor, lawn mower, whatever, it’s always been a notch above. I’m not saying that I am a farmer. I’m saying I’m comfortable around tractors and I’ve done my share of work on them, and Massey Ferguson has always been very reliable.

FL: You have a son and two stepdaughters. Loving them like you do must make it harder to be away on tour.

RA: I went out the last week before the holidays last year, and Elijah had a science project—he had to make a solar system game. And so I was out on about a 2-week run, flying back and forth to get back home, and all I could think about and all I could talk about out there was this solar system game that he and I were working on.

That stuff is a lot of fun, but my kids dread asking me about getting help on homework. They know if they’re going to ask me to help, I say, okay, I will, but we are going to go back to the first part of this chapter. We are going to go through the whole thing, we are going to figure out where this answer is, but I’m not just going to throw it out there to you.

My wife gets tickled because my stepdaughters call me “Big R,” and they’ll say, “We’ve got to ask Big R this question [about their homework].” They may dread it sometimes, but it’s paid off, though. I’m really proud of them.

FL: Everyday, hard-working people are the subjects of a lot of your songs, such as “These Are My People.” Can you talk a little about that?

RA: I love that song. It sums up that it isn’t always pretty but it’s real and that’s what we’re trying to sing about.

My music is about regular folks, man. Just doing the best they can, you know. The music is not about being perfect, it’s about being human and working hard. Sometimes you get ticked off, cuss the ground. At the end of the day you really want to try and do the best thing, and you’re thankful for the good Lord and his blessings, and you’re not really worthy of anything he’s giving you, but you’re thankful.

Continue to the next page for the extended Q&A.

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FL: Does that knowledge about your being adopted make you appreciate family all the more?

RA: Family, that’s what matters most. For me, family kind of goes beyond just who’s in your bloodline. I think love is thicker than blood. I can’t image life without my folks—it’s unconditional love. That’s what family is.

That’s why I like working with the National Counsel for Adoption and I’m very proud of that. And I think that having that feeling inside of you that no matter what, that I love you, I’m going to tell you the truth, and I’ve got your back. That’s what family is.

FL: You have two stepdaughters, right?

RA: Lindsey and Morgan. They’re 20 and 21 years old. They go to Tennessee Tech, where I went to school.

FL: And you and Tammy Jo have a son, Elijah. Tell us about him. Is he like you?

RA: He is a lot like me. I wasn’t reading, you know, 500-page books when I was eight years old, nine years old—that’s how old he is now. He’s loves that. I didn’t discover that you could read for fun, you know, until college, and he’s all about it. He’s very artistic, very athletic. He’s a good kid, he’s sweet, he has a lot of different interests, and he’s a daydreamer like I am. I see a whole lot of me in him.

FL: The idea of your children taking responsibility is important to you, right?

RA: One thing that I think was modeled for me, and I try to model it for my kids, is a work ethic. Things just don’t magically happen. I think accountability is very important.

Yeah, you know, it is tough being gone, but at the same time, I want my kids to understand that it takes a lot of work, not just for what I do, but records don’t just magically happen.

FL: Tell us about your musical influences.

RA: Growing up, I listened to everything from the Gaither’s, and whatever gospel music my dad might be into. At the same time, I have a sister who’s four years older than I am. When I’m in the 5th grade she’s starting high school and I’m learning about, you know, what she’s into at the time. So I had a little bit of that rock-‘n’-roll thing coming in. Always had Elvis in the house, and my folks had Ray Charles, Charlie Rich and Charlie Daniels.

But, then, I’m also a product of the ’80s country music—Randy Travis, Alabama, George Strait, Dwight Yoakam, John Conlee, all those guys. And the end of the 80s, the class of ’89—Travis Writ, Vince Gill, Clint Black, Garth, Allen Jackson. That’s when it hit me.

And you know, Garth Brooks not only influenced people musically, he inspired them in different ways, too. He kind of lifted you up and made you believe that you could do things—that impossible thing, whether it’s playing major league baseball, being a successful farmer or a doctor, or playing country music.

FL: Charlie Daniels was a big influence, too, right?

RA: He was a huge influence. That’s the first person I asked my parents about, as far as a recording artist, about how do you get to be Charlie Daniels, how do you get to do that? Their answer was you just work hard and keep working at it.

FL: Word is that if you meet Rodney in person, he’s quiet, just a normal guy. But when you put him on stage, it’s like electric, it’s like incredible.  You just can’t stop him from performing. Do you feel that way about yourself?

RA: You let your shadow out to play a little bit, yeah. I challenge myself and my band and crew to keep taking it up a notch every time, like after this show our bus could go off a cliff and this is could be our last show.

I mean, the guys I look up to, Garth and [Bruce] Springsteen, they put it out there with so much energy you feel like you’re going to explode. And when that crowd starts singing and giving it back to you, there’s nothing like it.

Last year, I was really proud—it was the first time we had consistently done, not just opening act slots, but tried to be the headliner on a lot of these shows.  We were doing 75-, 90-minute shows. It was awesome.

I will never forget BamaJam last year. The rain was blowing sideways, and I was pouring water out of my guitar and still playing. The crowd is just singing, and I thought, this is the coolest thing in the world. There’s just nothing like that energy, we’re in this together, these are my people, I love it.

FL: Talk a little about your song “Friends with Tractors.”

RA: It’s about that mentality that we are in this together. I think tractor folks have that thought process. It’s how they operate. They got work ethic, they got drive, they’re pretty much family oriented.

But also it’s like if you have a tractor you have a responsibility to help other people out. If you need some help, whatever it may be, it’s going to be that guy [with the tractor] who’s showing up to help you out.

Massey Ferguson operates that way—we’re in it together. I’m not just selling you a tractor, signoff, ye-haw, see you later, good-bye. I made money on you. No, they’re in it for the duration. It’s about that sense of community inside of what Massey Ferguson does.