In an environment where artists must prove themselves quickly or be dropped from their record labels, Rodney Atkins is an anomaly.
Signed to Curb Records in 1997, Atkins had four singles that struggled on the charts before he finally hit with his current outing, “Honesty (Write Me a List).” That song currently rounds out the top-10 of Billboard’s Hot Country Singles & Tracks chart.
“Everything in this business revolves around a great song,” Atkins says. “Willie Nelson said it best: ‘Ain’t nothing wrong with any of us that a hit song can’t fix.'”
In addition to a great song, penned by Patience Clements and David Kent, Atkins attributes his burgeoning success to Curb’s commitment. Label chairman Mike Curb “is really artist-driven,” Atkins says. “He loves that creative process.”
For Atkins, that process began in the mid-’90s. Raised in Cumberland Gap, Tenn., he came to Nashville seeking a record deal, and after knocking on several doors, found one at Curb. But he soon discovered that a lot can happen between the time an artist signs the contract and when that first album hits the street.
Atkins initially worked with producer Chuck Howard but didn’t feel they were capturing musically what he wanted to do. Sitting next to Mike Curb on a plane changed all that.
“Mike asked me how I felt about the project,” Atkins recalls. “We had recorded about seven or eight songs. I told him, ‘To be perfectly honest with you, I don’t feel very connected to it. We run in and record stuff. I sing a song two or three times and leave. When I finally get the finished songs, it doesn’t seem very representative of what I do.’ “
Curb gave Atkins the green light to switch producers to his frequent songwriting partner Ted Hewitt, who had been producing Atkins’ demos.
“[Curb] told me if I wanted to record 20 songs and mix them 30 times, that’s what I needed to do,” says Atkins. “He said I was capable of making a phenomenal country album and whatever the label needed to do to support that, that’s what would happen.”
The result is Atkins’ debut album, “Honesty,” which was released Oct. 14. It has sold 12,000 copies in the U.S., according to Nielsen SoundScan.
Atkins’ current radio success is especially sweet, as it comes on the heels of four lackluster singles. “In a Heartbeat” peaked at No. 74 in 1997, “Sing Along” peaked at No. 37 in August 2002 and “My Old Man” topped out at No. 36 in December 2002. “God Only Knows,” released in November 1997, failed to chart.
After those so-so results at radio, Atkins began to feel as if people were writing him off. It became harder to find good material for his album because pluggers weren’t pitching their top-drawer songs. That made Atkins determined to write more of his own material and search harder for great outside songs.
Carson James, Curb VP of promotion and media strategy, says the label has a history of commitment to artists. He cites as examples that Tim McGraw’s debut album wasn’t a huge success and that Steve Holy didn’t hit until his fourth single, “Good Morning Beautiful.” James observes, “We’ve been down this road before.”
According to James, label executives asked Atkins “to be patient through some real tough times, and he was. He did quite a few odd jobs, including counseling abused children, yet kept songwriting.”
His sound evolved from what James describes as similar to Roy Orbison to a more personal style. His image also morphed from a cowboy look to a more polished image.
“In the end it’s all about passion,” KMPS Seattle music director Tony Thomas says. “A well-written song delivered with passion by the right artist can really reach people. Rodney Atkins is doing that with ‘Honesty’ right now, and we know a whole lot of listeners who are grateful that Curb hung in there with him.”
Excerpted from the Dec. 6, 2003, issue of Billboard. The full original text of the article is available in the Billboard.com Premium Services section.
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