Makin' Tracks: Rodney Atkins Takes An Adult View of His Past With 'Thank God For You'

Rodney Atkins
Joseph Llanes

Rodney Atkins

At the apex of Rodney Atkins’ career in the mid- to late-2000s, he scored five No. 1s in a span of six singles, staking out a specific turf.

With his gravelly voice holding the material together, “If You’re Going Through Hell (Before the Devil Even Knows),” “Watching You” and “Cleaning This Gun (Come On in Boy)” all tested moral boundaries from an adult’s watchful view. His hits leaned toward the rock side, a point he underscored by name-checking Bruce Springsteen on “It’s America” and citing Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “The Ballad of Curtis Loew” on “These Are My People.”

With his new single — “Thank God for You,” which Curb released to terrestrial radio last month — Atkins returns to the tone and themes of his commercial peak, relaying the story of a rebellious teen who matures into a dedicated adult. The transformation occurs over a heartland-rock foundation; its central riff is so energetic and compact that it’s easy to draw a parallel with some of the Boss’s tightly wound riffs.

“I heard the Springsteen kind of treatment,” says Atkins, recalling his introduction to “Thank God” through a Logan Mize recording.

But Atkins also heard a little Anne Murray in it — not in the sound, but in its message of gratitude. Curb | Word Entertainment chief creative advisor Jim Ed Norman, who produced Murray’s “You Needed Me,” told Atkins during a meeting that if he could find a song that paired its sense of appreciation with a rocking attitude, it would be ideal for what would become the Caught Up in the Country album. Within a week, Atkins and his longtime producer, Ted Hewitt, brought in co-producer Blake Bollinger, who pitched just two songs; one, “Thank God for You,” checked the boxes Norman had introduced.

“I wanted a song that said thank you to not only my wife and my family, but to all the fans, to the record labels, the booking agents — to all the people that have kind of believed in me and stuck with me,” says Atkins. “This is exactly it.”

Originally, it had seemed right for Mize. He was signed to Sony Music Nashville when he wrote it in early 2015 with Blake Chaffin (“The Ones That Like Me”), Randy Montana (“Beer Never Broke My Heart”) and Jon McElroy (“I’ll Take That As a Yes,” “The Shake”) at Rare Spark, McElroy’s publisher at the time.

Mize threw out several ideas. He had the introductory riff and a series of images: “Burnt tire marks, hometown street/Red Trans Am, bad-boy streak.” He also mentioned a random title, “Thank God for You,” and Montana recognized that all of those elements belonged together. They wrote it in order from top to bottom, pumping out shreds of life in incomplete sentences in the verses, then spelling out the redemptive qualities of a woman in full-sentence form in a loud chorus.

“I think laundry-list verses are really cool, where it’s just a series of images all pointing toward your chorus,” says Montana. “Then when you sing the chorus, it all makes sense.”

The chorus indeed brought their work into greater focus, with the opening lines laying out how the hell-raising kid had grown because of a relationship: “I thank God there’s angels for young wild rebels/ Girls who can dance you away from the devil.”

“Jon McElroy, I remember getting excited when we came up with the line ‘Girls who can dance you away from the devil,’” recalls Chaffin. “That was just one of those energy/momentum shifts.”

If they hadn’t already mapped out the character’s progression in the song, the chorus cinched it. The first verse was about a carefree high school kid, the second verse covered his too-cool-for-college period, and the final verse finds him professionally singing songs about a woman who tamed him while playing a pawn-shop guitar.

They slipped a reference to a Skynyrd cover band in the second verse.

“A whole bunch of bar bands do Skynyrd,” says McElroy. “It could have been anybody, but the song was a little more rock.”

By the close, the contrast in the man’s progression is subtly palpable. Once wild and reckless with his expensive Trans Am, he seems more cautious and responsible in that final verse, the pawn-shop guitar implying that he’s watching his finances as he builds a worthwhile home for his wife.

“I like how we kept it positive,” says Chaffin. “There was some redemption in the song, you know, like the guy does grow up a little bit to a bigger purpose.”

All four of the writers saw at least a piece of themselves in the song, guaranteeing that they had imbued it with authenticity.

“When I first met my wife, Jill, I was kind of a wreck of a human being,” says Mize. “I had been in a bunch of bands, but I didn’t really have anything going that was making money. And then she was like, ‘You know, maybe you should try to actually do something with this, like get more focused and take care of yourself and not drink so much.’ I was kind of the stone she started chipping away at.”

“Thank God for You” was imminently singable, and it attracted plenty of attention around town. Ronnie Dunn, in particular, was interested in it, but Sony had it in mind as a potential single for Mize, so Dunn was nixed as a potential suitor.

“If you listen, the verse melody is that signature lick,” says Montana. “Divert from that into the chorus, it’s a wailing kind of melody. I think that that’s what has drawn people to that song. I mean, it’s been cut three or four different times, I think.”

When Mize left Sony, “Thank God for You” was suddenly available, and it was a perfect fit for Atkins. In addition to the gratitude that Norman had envisioned, its Skynyrd bar-band reference and Springsteen-like hook paid homage to that earlier peak period of Atkins’ career. So did the line about the devil.

Atkins recorded it at Curb Studios, gearing its arrangement toward arena audiences. He tweaked the production at his home studio, removing instruments in the back half of the song to create a dramatic arc and dropping the sound under the phrase “college dropout” in an audio pun.

“I think a record has to grow,” says Atkins. “You kind of fill it up with stuff and then figure out what to take away, kind of carving out a David statue.”

Atkins’ wife, singer-songwriter Rose Falcon (“Friday Night”), provided harmonies on the verses, while Vicki Hampton and Kim Keyes tore up the backing vocals on the chorus. Atkins sang the final lead vocals at his home studio, starting in pre-dawn hours and working to establish the right amount of grit in his tone.

When Atkins performed “Thank God for You” for ABC’s Good Morning America, producers asked him to change one line: “American girls, Mexican weed.” Atkins, who doesn’t smoke, happily agreed, so an altered version went to radio with the new phrase, “American kid, farmhand roots.”

The writers approved that change, and with good reason. McElroy remembers a major station refusing to play his Phil Vassar single “I’ll Take That As a Yes (The Hot Tub Song),” because it mentioned a French kiss. “When Rodney calls and says, ‘I think we have to take Mexican weed out of there,’ I’m going, ‘Yeah, I’m sure we do,’” he says.

“Thank God For You” makes this week’s New and Active chart, as Atkins reconnects with the sound and the message that brought him to prominence.

“I’ve had more success with songs that are about real life,” he says. “That’s the stuff that I’m willing to kind of place my bets on.”

This article first appeared in the Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to sign up for free.