It really is hard to know just what the hell to do with Aaron Lewis. On the one hand, his music is definitely country, and don’t go citing his former life as the frontman of Staind as some rebuttal to this conclusion. If you listen to his new country record State I’m In, or even his last one called Sinner and don’t settle upon the opinion that it’s country you’re hearing, even if it doesn’t fit your particular style, then drop your country music membership card in the basket on your way out the door. If anything, it’s almost too country in the sense that Aaron Lewis puts extra effort out to self-affirm his country-ness, sometimes at the risk of being cliché.
On the other hand, Aaron Lewis comes with a very large amount of baggage, from the fact that he used to be a rocker who migrated to country later in his career on a similar flight path to Hootie, to how you can’t get away from his arrogance, from shutting down concerts because the crowd won’t be quiet enough, to pursuing folks for changing the National Anthem, and then forgetting it himself. If you don’t want to like Aaron Lewis, he’s made it easy for you over the years.
Aaron Lewis is an Outlaw country artist, but not in the business sense of the term. State I’m In comes with the Big Machine Records emblem stamped on the back, meaning he’s tied to one of Music Row’s biggest label concerns as the home of Florida Georgia Line, Rascal Flatts, and the like. Aaron Lewis is on the Valory Music imprint of Big Machine, which is the same one as Thomas Rhett, making the speculative country music fan wonder if Lewis is just a way the Music Row machine is working to re-integrate disgruntled country music fans.
But it’s the style of his music that makes you consider Aaron Lewis an Outlaw artist, meaning many of his songs are about “Damn right I’m this” and “You bet I’m that” and “Don’t tell me what to do dammit.” You know the kind of country music we’re talking about here—-that self-affirming, braggadocios style of songwriting, almost self-aggrandizing as half time beats and dobro/steel guitar bray in the background. Of course in the modern context this is more of a caricaturist version of Outlaw country than something akin to what Willie and Waylon did. The Outlaw legends had their fair share of sharp-edged songs too, but their careers were defined just as much by love ballads. These days “Outlaw” means mostly shots of the strong stuff, with maybe a sentimental song or two mixed in.
State I’m In is the kind country record that will get the Americana crowd catching you later, but is chock full of red meat for the blue collar and biker crowds who grew up on alternative rock and Ol’ Waylon. Twangy, hard-driving, and uncompromising, there’s no effort to achieve radio play here, or to bridge the gap between country and some other genre. There’s even a country protest song in the form of “It Keeps On Workin’,” which puts a lot of Lewis’s fellow label mates in the cross hairs for their Bro Country songs. Though the effort is appreciated (and not the first protest song Lewis has cut), it sounds a little too similar to Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” (whether on purpose to pay homage, or not), and just doesn’t feel very original. The proliferation of these protest songs at this point has rendered many of them cliché themselves, and Lewis doesn’t do a lot separate his latest contribution from that herd.
But overall, State I’m In is an impassioned, well-produced effort by Buddy Cannon, and with moments of surprise songwriting depth and vulnerability despite the otherwise hard-edged “modern Outlaw” approach that garners Lewis most of his attention. “Reconsider,” “Love Me,” and especially the last song “The Bottom” show that Aaron Lewis is willing to embrace the full breadth of country roots, including the sentimental moments, and he does so without attempting to fake a Southern accent (he’s originally from Vermont). He may not sound like he’s from south Alabama, but Aaron’s voice comes with a familiarity and richness of tone that endears itself to the songs he writes. State I’m In also includes a really good previously-unreleased Keith Whitley song called “Burnt The Sawmill Down” that Lewis does more than justice.
State I’m In includes more to be thankful for than criticize, especially since its coming from the halls of power in mainstream country which could use more releases like this. But Lewis also can’t help but fall back on the prideful nature of his personality that is just as much burden as it is asset. Though “God and Guns” will be the song many hardcore Aaron Lewis fans gravitate towards as one of the album’s best, it takes the same simplistic approach to complex problems that left-leaning songs from Margo Price, Will Hoge, and Ryan Bingham do. Nobody’s coming to take your God and guns away any more than we’re living in the worst era ever for women and minorities in American history. It’s this type of rhetoric that ratchets up division and misunderstanding, renders music and certain artists as polarizing, and exacerbates problems as opposed to opening minds to them.
State I’m In is a sum positive for country music, but you can’t help citing how artists such as Cody Jinks, Dillon Carmichael, Ben Jarrell, or Whitey Morgan do much of the same thing, but with more original character, more substance in the songwriting, and they don’t come with all the personal baggage Aaron Lewis does. He’s is one of those guys that you either really get into, or can’t even stand the look of his face. But then there’s a loyalty Lewis enjoys from his hardcore fans that many artists you could take or leave just can’t achieve with their fan bases. Aaron Lewis fans are willing to go into battle for him, which is good because at times he requires them to.
Music isn’t a popularity contest, or one where personality of the artist is the primary concern. Aaron Lewis and State I’m In is by far and away a better, healthier, and more country option compared to most anything else coming off of Music Row, from Big Machine Records and beyond. Aaron Lewis is alternative programming, embracing the sometimes tired, but other times tireless elements of true country music, and helping to keep them alive at a time when they’ve never been more troubled.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7/10)
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