Aaron Lewis’s debut EP ‘Town Line’ saw the Staind frontman experimenting with a more country-based sound.  Having grown up with country music, he said the style felt natural to him.  The result was enjoyable, but not always wholly country in a purist sense – yes, there were rootsy leanings throughout and the songs were far more country than anything Staind would likely ever record, but a couple of the tunes still had a slight rock edge.  Still, it was country enough for him to gain a couple of award nominations from the Academy of Country Music.

A couple of years on, Lewis’s first full length release first capitalises on the promise of that EP and its first three tracks are pure gold.  Lead track ‘75’ begins with a very traditional sounding country guitar played with a deep twang, joined in the left channel by steel accompaniment.  …And then, with no messing around, Lewis offers some country staples – he’s “tired of missing the moments he won’t get back”, he’s tired of missing his loved ones, tired of motels.  It may be over familiar, but the well-worn tune and combined with an oft-told tale of road weariness seems to be an appropriate place to begin this record.  Its old-fashioned sentiments and tried-and-trusted arrangement (one which would suit almost any of Lewis’s forefathers) show a greater love and commitment to the genre than pretty much anything from his previous EP.  The easy groove and dobro which drives  the title cut is akin to southern groover JJ Cale at his most country influenced, while the more upbeat style allows for a few more lead guitar noodlings to provide musical interest, while Lewis himself offers a vocal with the confident style of a man who has been making country records for years.  In a slightly poppier style ‘Endless Summer’ is a feel good tune, full of harmonies.  By the time the chorus hits, it’s clear this was made for radio.  There’s a slightly more pointed guitar solo than on the previous two tracks, edging things slightly further toward country-rock territory; the general mood could (almost) be likened to one of Nickelback’s softer hits…only covered by a country star.  It may be the album’s most throwaway tune, but looking at the bigger picture, this opening trilogy of songs covers most of Lewis’s chosen musical moods in one triple-whammy.

From that point on, things don’t weaken.  The patriotic ‘Red, White & Blue’ features some pleasing hard twangin’ guitar counterbalanced by some syrupy steel guitar, and as such is classic new country, the kind that would suit Garth Brooks or any of his million-selling peers.  Perhaps part of the featured guitar solo is a little harder than on some country records, but it doesn’t intrude too much, or weaken the overall country vibes.  Vocally, Lewis may be slightly filtered, but the deep richness in his voice shines through.   ‘Lesson Learned’ is much more restrained, it’s pastel colours allowing Lewis to deliver one of his best performances.  Set against a dobro and steel guitars (with the dobro often rising to the fore), his commanding croon sounds terrific as he works his way through a thoughtful lyric, name-checking  Johnny Cash and advising us all to “slow down a little bit, take time, rewind, appreciate the little things that life provides”.  The closest ‘The Road’ gets to its predecessor is during ‘Forever’, where Lewis allows more grit to influence his vocal.  In turn, the drums are a little louder in places and some swirling organ fleshes out the loudest moments.  With a whole world of steel guitars thrown in, it’s still firmly country and is a great song for what it is, but those coming at this from a country fan’s perspective will certainly find a stronger affinity elsewhere.

Closing the disc, the ominously titled ‘Party In Hell’ is another woozy waltz.  Musically, it’s full of country music staples, with a dobro and particularly sharp lead guitar’s string-bent, hard twang punctuating each line with great effect.  With Lewis reflecting his place “washed up and burned out” while imagining a raucous gathering with Janis, Jimi, Rick James…and Jamey Johnson drinking from a brown paper bag, the mood may be a little more heavy handed, but the musical mood brings things full circle with the opening number ‘75’. This adds to the feeling that for musicians, it’s all about the road… and the road goes on forever.

On ‘The Road’, there’s even less musically – and thematically – connecting Lewis with his alt-rock day job than ever before, but in terms of where he is headed with his solo career, that can only be a good thing. Overall, this is a surprisingly good record, one which exceeds expectations.  With ten very strong numbers to be heard, it’s a release that those who like a little – or even a lot – of country music would be foolish not to make time for. Most importantly, for a man who hasn’t always been associated with the country scene, it’s far more country than about half of what’s often peddled in the name of the genre…

November 2012



Although the third album by alternative rock/post-grunge band Staind had a very commercial edge in places, a commercial feel which the band retained over each subsequent release, few could have predicted that their frontman Aaron Lewis’s first solo release would be a country record. Despite making his name with hard rock music, Lewis was raised on country and has chosen to put his stamp on it with ‘Town Line’ – a five song EP featuring guest spots by Chris Young, fiddle player Charlie Daniels (best known for his 1979 hit ‘The Devil Went Down To Georgia’) and the legendary George Jones.

The single release ‘Country Boy’ has a strong acoustic base, coupled with an almost marching quality on the drums. Despite a great use of slide guitar and a definite rootsy feel, it’s clear why this was chosen as the lead track. The vocal is unmistakably that of Aaron Lewis, and here, his heartfelt delivery keeps in line with the sound of Staind’s power ballads. Despite occasional scraping fiddle from Daniels (who also delivers a slightly cringe-worthy monologue at the close), it’s the perfect vehicle for breaking listeners in gently.

At times elsewhere, things get a little more country. Obviously, Lewis’s style isn’t one of old-school country and western syrupiness, but it’s not always as influenced by country-rock as you’d expect either. The most country-rock number, ‘Vicious Circle’ sounds like a country re-working of a Hootie & The Blowfish ballad. Beneath atmospheric and twanging electric guitar work, it’s the acoustic guitars, lapsteels and dobros which provide the heart of the number. Naturally, these instruments are a world away from Staind’s world of hard rock. The spaciousness of the arrangement allows Lewis the room to deliver a very powerful performance. It’s definitely the stand-out track, with each of the elements sounding very strong indeed.

A re-recording of the Staind number ‘Tangled Up In You’ offers the most uninspired track. While Lewis’s performance is faultless and the harmonies on the chorus are pleasing, overall, it presents little difference to the original recording. The Staind original was an acoustic lament anyway – and the only concession to making the number fit the country mould is the addition of a soft lapsteel throughout. A harmony vocal from Alexa Carter, which becomes most obvious at the song’s close, adds a little extra something, but it’s hardly a groundbreaking performance. ‘The Story Never Ends’ is probably the most country influenced track. It’s music-television new-country by numbers as opposed to a old-school hoedown, but again, Lewis sounds comfortable in his country shoes. Chris Young’s harmony vocals provide some great backing on a well-constructed chorus.

Lewis takes his country influences fairly seriously throughout this release. While this change in direction may seem odd at first, nothing sounds unnatural – he has a definite feeling for this musical style. If country music is good enough for Hootie’s Darius Rucker then it’s good enough for others (though, make no mistake, Lewis’s solo debut doesn’t get quite that country) but even so, it’s hard to say whether many Staind fans will embrace Aaron Lewis’s change of direction here. This is a release that is undoubtedly going to be too country for most Staind fans, yet not country enough for country music fans…but even so, it presents a short, yet solid set of songs.

[The five new recordings are augmented with two bonus versions of ‘Country Boy’, in both acoustic form and a radio edit]

March 2011