Aaron Lewis of hard rock balladeers Staind is used to taking flack for following his muse, so it's no surprise to him that his country music-influenced EP 'Town Line' -- out on March 1 and featuring the lead single 'Country Boy' -- has caused some folks to make bandwagon-jumping accusations.

However, Taste of Country's interview with Lewis reveals a confident, focused musician who grew up with country music as the soundtrack to his childhood and is unafraid to let his love for the genre show through. Our conversation reveals how his bandmates and fans are reacting to his new music, what it was like growing up in rural Vermont, and how none other than Kid Rock reminded him of his childhood love for country music.

So you grew up out in the sticks of Vermont, right? When people think of country music, they almost always think of the south.
Yup. In the song 'Country Boy,' the house that I'm talking about -- "down an old dirt road, in a town you wouldn't know" -- well, I grew up in Shrewsbury, Vermont. Our driveway was a two-and-a-half mile long logging road, and at the top of the logging road was a hunting cabin. That's where we lived for a few years. In the wintertime we had to leave the VW bus my parents drove at the time at the bottom of the hill. They'd pull me and the groceries up the hill on a Toboggan, then we'd ride it down the hill again to go out.

I'm a Yankee. But half of my family, the majority of my dad's family, they all sound like the Pepperidge Farm cookie guy when they're talking -- that old "can't get they-yarr from he-yarr" thing.

Was country music always around?
As a kid, I spent a lot of time with my grandfather. If there wasn't country music coming from somewhere, something was wrong. If we were driving to go hunting or fishing or to check his traps,, it would be on in the car. At his house, it would be on the little radio in the kitchen. If we were outside working in the yard, it'd be playing there. It was basically the soundtrack of my childhood.

So how did you get exposed to the harder music Staind started out playing?
My grandfather passed away, we moved, the friends that I was hanging out with did not listen to country music. It was Zeppelin and the Doors and the Beatles. It was stuff that I heard in my house growing up, like Crosby, Stills and Nash, Jim Croce and Cat Stevens. And then, during the '80s, the first Motley Crue record creeped in there a little bit, the first Skid Row record, Megadeth, Metallica, you know, that type of stuff is what I listened to as a teenager. Country music kind of left my life for a while.

How did you come back to country music?
We got a record deal, and our first real tour ever was with Kid Rock, February of '99. On many occasions I ended up riding on his bus, 'cause we were hanging out. At that particular time, and I'm sure it's still the case, he had old Hank blaring and George Jones and all the old classics, and it was like a trip down memory lane. I recognized all these songs from my childhood and had a whole new appreciation for them. Since that moment when he re-introduced me, I haven't been able to get away from it.  You'll never catch me listening to rock stations -- I just don't. It's either patriotic talk radio or country.

What effect did that have on projects like 'Town Line?'
The way I've always written over the years was sitting down on my couch with an acoustic guitar. It seems like the most sensible route to go with my acoustic stuff was to paint and color it with country flavor. I don't know if it would have worked to try and make it sound like, hypothetically, John Mayer or Jason Mraz.  That wasn't my fit. Once we were finished with this record, it was pretty obvious that no, it's not traditional country, but that's more where it fits than anywhere else.

What do your Staind bandmates think of your solo work?
Oh, they're not worried about it at all.  They're very supportive. They know I'm not going anywhere. We're right in the middle of a new album now. When I'm done with these interviews, I'm heading up there to keep banging away.

How's the crowd response been to the 'Town Line' songs?
Amazing. 'Country Boy' gets a bigger response than [Staind songs] 'It's Been a While' or 'Outside.'

Are you happy with how your older songs sound in a more countrified setting?
It kind of shows, if nothing else, that I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel. I'm writing the same songs I've always written -- I just accompanied them differently. If you took all those songs I wrote [for Staind] on my couch and did that, they would fit. There's total continuity there. That should hopefully shut everybody up about selling out and jumping ship and all that, which some people are giving me a hard time about. But that's gonna happen anyway. I've gotten a hard time in my career, ever since we had any success. I've heard sellout and everything out. As far as I know, because I know how it's always gone down, the only thing we've ever sold out is venues.

How did you get George Jones and Charlie Daniels on your record?
It's a pretty crazy story. We had finished what we were doing on tracking and stuff, and my producer James asked, "So, what are you thinking? You feeling anybody for coming and doing a guest appearance on the song?" I was given no parameters, so I totally shot for the stars: 'Qell, you know, it'd be pretty cool to have Charlie Daniels come in and lay down a fiddle track on here." So James picked up a cell phone and hand-dialed the number -- didn't check his Rolodex or his contact sheet or anything. Charlie picks up, and I hear, "We'd love to have you listen to this song, see if you wanna do anything." There's a brief pause, then James says "Thursday? 10:30? All right bud, we'll see you then." He hangs up the phone and says, "All right, who else you thinking?"

That must have been pretty awesome.
It took me 30 or 40 seconds to even say anything 'cause I was shell-shocked. But since I had just shot for the stars the first time, I was like, well, there's really nobody I could think of that would be a better voice of the devil then George Jones. And he picked up his phone and did the exact same thing. Hand-dialed the number, two minute conversation with George, and he agreed to come in the next week!

What was your third wish?
Well, Chris Young is one of my favorite new artists out there right now. I think James has produced all of his stuff so far, and the fact that he was available to do it too ... everything fell into place so effortlessly. There's probably no more than 18 hours spent on this whole five-song EP. Everything just happened so easy and so naturally and so fluidly.

Can fans expect a follow-up?

Oh, absolutely! The deal was, because I'm signed to Atlantic, and because they couldn't figure out what to do with me and my solo stuff -- that's been the delay over the last few years, as to why it's taken this so long to come out. They finally signed a waiver to allow me to put this out, but not a whole record, just an EP. When we hand in this next Staind record, we will have held and completed our contractual obligations, so for the first time in our career, we'll really be in a position to be able to run this thing.

Watch the Aaron Lewis 'Country Boy' Video

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