Aaron Lewis encountered his share of naysayers when he first dipped his toes into country music with his 2011 EP, “Town Line.” As the lead singer of Staind, Lewis was a star on the metal scene, and plenty of people dismissed his foray into country as a vanity project.
With the arrival in fall 2016 of Lewis’ second full-length album, “Sinner,” (as well as a recently released stand-alone single, “Folded Flag”) Lewis said people are taking his intentions to have a solo career in country far more seriously.
“I think that everyone is finally starting to figure out that I’m not going anywhere,” Lewis said in a recent phone interview.
Indeed, Lewis has not gone away. Aside from a Staind tour in summer 2014, that band has been inactive. And since releasing his first full-length album, “The Road,” in 2012, Lewis has been one of the hardest touring artists in country music. He’s reached the point where he’s a reliable headlining draw for theaters and large clubs
“I’m consistently selling out 2,500 to 3,000 seats with hard tickets,” Lewis said.
Lewis will help kick off the first night of music Friday at the inaugural Country Boom music festival at Maple Grove Venues near West Salem. Others on the main stage for Friday include Randy Houser, Tyler Farr, Riley Green and Ben Johnson while Saturday’s main-stage acts include Chase Rice, Phil Vassar, Michael Tyler, Faren Rachels, Josh Phillips, Jake Rose and Brushville.
Lewis figures to stay focused on country for at least the next several months or so and says Staind fans should not expect to see that band to reunite any time soon.
“I definitely see it staying on hold for awhile,” he said of Staind. “I’ve got to stay focused on this (country career). I’ve got to take this to where it needs to get to before I can start risking things with the good ol’ boy network reception and throwing in a handful of Staind shows in the summertime along with all of my country shows. But that’s down the road. I can’t even think about that right now.”
Although appearances might have suggested otherwise, Lewis came to country music honestly. Growing up in Massachusetts, he was immersed in traditional country through his grandfather, a huge country music fan, who had classic country playing throughout the day.
In his later teens, he began getting interested in heavy metal and hard rock, which is why when he emerged on the music scene, it was with Staind, which became one of hard rock’s most popular bands with a string of chart-topping albums, 2001’s “Break the Cycle,” 2003’s “14 Shades of Grey” and 2005’s “Chapter V” and continued to enjoy significant success with later albums like “The Illusion of Progress” (2008) and “Staind” (2011).
The group, though, experienced its share of internal turmoil as time went on and went on hiatus after the 2011 self-titled album.
Given the chance to step out as a solo artist, Lewis re-embraced the country music roots of his youth and released “Town Line” and “The Road,” earning praise for his earthy brand of traditional country music.
He’s earned enough respect that “Sinner” features guest appearances from such major names in country as Willie Nelson, Vince Gill and Alison Krauss.
Nelson adds his distinctive vocals to the latest album’s title track.
“Willie is part of my soundtrack of my childhood,” Lewis said. “I really, I got lucky and just happened to be in the studio with Buddy Cannon, who has done all sorts of Willie records.”
Cannon, a legendary songwriter and producer whose credits include projects with Nelson, Merle Haggard and Reba McEntire, stepped in to produce “Sinner” after Lewis worked with James Stroud on “Town Line” and “The Road.” Stroud, who Lewis said has been gearing down on his production work, was able to get country icon George Jones to sing on the song “Country Boy” from the EP.
“Just like James Stroud did back in the day, Buddy Cannon picked up his phone, hand dialed the number off of memory and called Willie,” Lewis said. “And Willie said ‘Sure, absolutely, just like George (Jones) did when James called him.”
Now Lewis has gotten to know Nelson well enough that the outlaw country icon invited Lewis to open a string of shows for him last fall. The two got to know each other off stage during their run of shows.
“It’s just been amazing experience to sit and talk with such an intelligent old man, such a wise old soul,” Lewis said of Nelson.
As for Gill, Lewis got to know the accomplished singer/guitarist after meeting him at a show by Gill’s side band, the Time Jumpers. Gill adds vocals to “That Ain’t Country,” the first single from “Sinner.”
“I’m pretty sure I’m the first artist to have ever gotten him (Gill) to sing the word ‘s***,’” Lewis said, referencing that four-letter word, which is sung rather emphatically in the song.
On “That Ain’t Country,” Lewis takes aim at current mainstream country music, saying what he hears on radio isn’t what he considers country — both musically and lyrically. The second verse sums up the message:
“That ain’t country, that’s a natural fact/It’s full of tales of good times and happy endings, my life ain’t like that/ So I’ll keep listenin’ to the old songs that my granddad used to play/Full of pain and heartache and desperation and the ones that got away.”
Lewis’ ideas of how country music should sound were apparent on both “Town Line” and “The Road.” And now “Sinner” continues to take him down a musical path rooted in the classic country of Haggard, Jones or other artists of the 1960s and ’70s.
The tunes generally fall into two general categories — sturdy ballads and kicking rockers. “Sunday Every Saturday Night,” “Whiskey and You” and “Mama” are acoustic based, rough-around-the-edges ballads that would suit the likes of Haggard or Waylon Jennings. “Sinner” gets shots of energy from “That’s Not Country,” a hard swinging, hard twanging rocker, and “Northern Redneck” another frisky track with some punch and twang, as well as the hearty mid-tempo track, “Story of My Life.”
There is one significant twist with “Sinner.” Where Lewis focused more on story songs on his earlier releases, several songs (“Lost and Lonely” and “Story of My Life”) on the new album are considerably darker and more personal — in other words, not that far afield from the kind of self-lacerating, purging lyrics Lewis brought to Staind.
Lewis didn’t get specific about what inspired this shift in his lyrical focus.
“Well, I was in a different place in my life, different things to express, different things stuck in my craw,” he said. “It’s just a different time, so different lyrics came.
“I’m very self-destructive,” Lewis added. “Let’s leave it at that.”
Lewis wrote the songs on “Sinner” during sound checks on tour over the past several years, and tested out most of them on audiences during concerts over that span. So his shows this winter and spring figure to feature a selection of songs new and old that will be similar to the set lists he played in 2016.
“I’ve been playing it (the “Sinner” album) a bunch, probably about half and half new stuff versus the stuff from the previous records,” Lewis said. “It certainly hasn’t slowed down on how country it is.”