Music’s anti-sellout

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Aaron Lewis, shown above in a promotional photo, will headline the All Ohio Balloon Fest on Friday, taking the stage at 8:30 p.m.

(Photo submitted)

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No one can accuse Aaron Lewis of being a sellout.

After millions of album sales with the band Staind and topping U.S. rock charts with songs like “It’s Been a While,” “Outside,” “So Far Away” and “Right Here,” Lewis wanted to try something different.

So when Staind took a hiatus in 2011, he decided to try his hand at country music. Crossing over into country from another genre isn’t unheard of, but Lewis didn’t embark on a path to sell records with radio-friendly hits. Instead he chose to follow a style more in line with artists like Waylon Jennings and Merle Haggard that he heard his grandfather listen to growing up. He leaned into the Outlaw Country movement with other contemporaries like Cody Jinks, Jamey Johnson and Chris Stapleton.

Lewis, who will headline the All Ohio Balloon Fest on Friday, admitted that the business people surrounding him weren’t wild about his choice to embrace a steel guitar-heavy style of music. He said those closest to him, however, knew the shift wasn’t about airplay.

“I do OK without radio,” Lewis said. “I’m not sure radio wanted a reminder of what country music used to sound like.”

Lewis has made no secret that he was disenfranchised with the corporate music machine that was driving Staind. The lyrics to his song “Country Boy” make that clear.

“Now, it’s been twelve years since I sold my soul to the devil in L.A.”

“He said sign your name here on the dotted line and your songs, they all will play.”

But for a man who loves hunting, fishing and his home in rural Massachusetts, the L.A. lifestyle didn’t fit his plans. He said executives would dig their fingers in every phase of the music creation process, often critiquing unfinished songs.

In some ways, tinkering with the songs became an appraisal of his life. Lewis writes a large majority of the music he performs, both with Staind and now as a solo artist. The topics he sings about, even those about self-destruction, are introspective, if not outright autobiographical.

“It’s real,” he said. “It happened to me.”

So, he left the rock lifestyle behind, setting himself down a new path in country music that eliminated a lot of the oversight and kept him in charge of the music.

And now, having released his third solo country album, “State I’m In,” this spring, Lewis has been able to build a dedicated fan base through consistent touring and selling out more intimate venues.

But even his live shows don’t revert to conventions. You won’t find any pyrotechnics, choreography or moving stage pieces.

What Lewis brings to the stage is his guitar and an achingly dynamic voice that can fill a concert hall. In fact, his voice is so loud it can be a problem when he sings in the car with his children.

“It’s not pleasant for them,” Lewis said.

Everything unique about an Aaron Lewis show begins and ends with his voice.

It allows him to close many of his indoor shows sing the final song without a microphone.

He said he got the idea after watching a documentary in which Jeff Tweedy of the band Wilco performed a similar closing number.

“I thought, I could do that – because my voice is so obnoxiously loud,” Lewis said.

He decided to test the idea at one of the most storied music venues in America – The Ryman Auditorium, former home of the Grand Ole Opry. Known as the Carnegie Hall of the South, the Ryman is a former church, so Lewis knew the acoustics were designed to project the nonamplified voice of a preacher.

“I was hung up on the idea of doing it,” Lewis said. “It was a challenge.”

The song went well and Lewis continues to use the idea in closing shows to this day. He most likely won’t be able to do it at the Balloon Fest, however, because the outdoor venue does not provide the proper acoustics.

But the unique closing isn’t the only vocal surprise, Lewis slides into his live shows.

Despite being an artist who values authenticity, he often runs through a segment where he sings portions of other artists songs. While it might not seem a stretch for him to cover a Journey song, he often throws in some hits from artists outside of his comfort zone, like 4 Non Blondes, Richard Marx or Neil Diamond.

“I’ve always been good at imitating other singers’ voices,” he said.

His extensive catalogue of covers comes from his early jobs in music, where crowds didn’t want to hear his original songs.

“I used to be the guy in the corner at the sports bar that played three sets,” Lewis said. “I know hundreds of covers.”

Lewis has a very organic relationship with the crowds at his shows, fueled by his routine of telling stories from the stage and conversing with the crowd. But that back-and-forth sometimes comes at a cost.

There have been instances were rowdy crowds have prompted the singer to cut performances short by a song or two. Lewis acknowledge that his style of performing, where the crowd can feel like a participant in the show, can be like walking a tightrope.

While he wants fans to have fun and be responsive at the shows, Lewis said he still needs a level of decorum. In the end he is trying to deliver a performance.

“Just give me a level of respect, (because) you paid good, good money to see me,” he said.

Lewis will take the stage at 8:30 p.m., Friday, at the Balloon Fest. Shane Stephens Band will open the night’s music at 5 p.m., followed by Jacked Up Band.

Tickets are available at eventbrite.com.



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