The subject matter of Mike Aiken's current album, "Captains & Cowboys," is very close to his heart and soul. It's also something that he knows very well.
"My wife Amy and I have lived on a sailboat for the past twenty years," he told Billboard. "We've been based in the U.S., Canada, and Spain. We've been all over. I've been a licensed captain for about twenty years. A lot of my life takes place on the water, and in a previous lifetime, I grew up rural, and raised Quarter Horses and Appaloosas, and was also shoeing horses for a living – all while trying to start out playing music. I spent a lot of time around the rodeo and rodeo people."
The similarities between people he met on the seas – and in the horse world made him sit up and take notice. "When I moved from a land base to the ocean, I started realizing a lot of those personality traits were in these small boat captains," he stated. "They were the same independent, hard-working people who wanted to live life on their own terms, so I started thinking about how I could merge that. They are both a big part of me, and a part of the Americana of this country. It took me a while to find the right song to merge those two."
The set's first single is "Summertime Song." He thinks it was a wise choice with the upcoming changing of the seasons. "I've been real pleased with it. I co-wrote that with Tim Buppert. We cut it and got a nice groove about it. It took me a while to find a producer I liked, and Dan Baird from the Georgia Satellites came in to produce it. We talked about it for a bunch of months, and he had some unorthodox ways of going about things that really suited me."
Just like with Baird, Aiken takes a great deal of pride in having the right mix of Nashville musicians on the new album. "We worked hard toward getting the right people. Working with Dan, I told him what I was going after. I'm not an overly polished sort of guy. I'm after the right parts in the right place that speak to your heart. There's got to be the right feel, and not just notes for notes sake. We were really lucky to get Dan Dugmore on pedal steel. I've been listening to him on record for a long time. He was on everything that I loved that had a certain pedal steel feel. That was a dream come true. We got Tammy Rogers from the SteelDrivers. She did the mandolin and the fiddle, and does such phenomenal work. We also had Michael Webb come in from Poco, and he did the accordion and keyboard stuff."
The emotional center of the album is the touching "Your Memory Wins," which he co-wrote with Music City tunesmith Austin Cunningham.
"That song took about a year to write," he said. "We went in, and had a tear-jerker, cry-in-your-beer song when we first started. We got about 80% of it done, and then we ran out of time. Our schedules took us in different directions, and it took us a year to get back together on it. In between, we went through some tough times. I know, for myself, my mom died. She had lived a great life right up to the end, but it was watching my dad – who was married to her for 65 years, and seeing how he was handling his new life without her. Austin and I re-analyzed the song, and came up with some things that were a little more closer to home than just a breakup song, but a song where the love of your life was gone – not through a divorce or a breakup, but they were gone. I think that took the song a little closer to the bone."
Aiken will be taking his stories and his music on the road this summer – and will be hosting his annual Aiken & Friends Fest coming up October 4-5 in Smithfield, VA.