iven country radio's pop penchant and tight playlists, many of country's more country artists were given the squeeze the last couple of years. Folks like Randy Travis and Aaron Tippin found hits are to come by.
Nevertheless, comeback kid Tippin has a hot one on his hands with "Kiss This." An unlikely hit due to its in-your-face lyrics, the former professional aviator's first single from his seventh studio album, "People Like Us," flew quickly up the charts.
The working man's country singer never expected it.
"(I am) shocked. In the back of my mind, I always hope things go great, but as time rolls on, you realize they can't always. So, you finish up what you're supposed to do, and you gotta start lookin' in the next direction," says Tippin by phone from his Smithville, Tenn. home.
"And when you look behind, you notice there's a little spark, and next thing there's a little fire, and then there's a big fire. And everything's going on back there, and it's very exciting and very surprising, and you go, 'wow, we did something right.'"
Right, indeed. Amid hits by pop-country princess Faith Hill and the two-shakes-and-a-smile-style of SHeDAISY, Tippin's taut country sound sticks out. So much so that Lyric Street Records, Tippin's label, hesitated when the song was presented to them.
Tippin, too, wondered whether it would fly.
"I'd never have guessed it. I mean, when we finished it I thought, 'that's a pretty neat little song. Let's turn it in and see what they think of it.' The truth is, there was only one guy over there at Lyric Street that thought that 'Kiss This' was a hit - our A&R guy, Doug Howard," the 42-year-old says. "He said, 'Man, that's cool. Y'all need to think about that.' So they did and we ended up puttin' it on the album."
Tippin says that the song, much as it's done on radio, tugged quickly at Lyric Street's ears. They knew that this was the song that would work, despite its brashness.
"When we took it back to let the entire staff hear what we had cut, the promo staff stepped up and said, 'this is our first single, thank you.' And we went... 'really?' We thought well, that's a cute little album cut. We didn't think they had the guts to go add something like that to radio, but they're a pretty good team over there. They do what they can."
A flexible song, "Kiss This" could be pointed toward most anything and anyone. That pesky, loud neighbor or perhaps a bird-brained boss. Heck, even President Clinton.
"That works for me, I'll tell ya that," Tippin says with a hearty laugh when asked if it could be a message to Bill Clinton. "We get a lot of angles on that song."
Yet much as George Jones had done when he first heard "He Stopped Loving Her Today," Tippin just didn't hear a hit when he first heard "Kiss This." Not that he didn't like it; he just didn't think radio would bite.
Tippin says he's been wrong before. He compares the surprise he felt for "Kiss This" with "That's as Close as I'll Get to Loving You."
"I didn't really think that that was the kind of song that the 'You've Got to Stand for Something' guy (his first hit in 1990) ought to be doing," Tippin says of his past hit. "In the video, I'm chasin' some guy's wife. I just didn't think that was the image we ought to portray for Aaron Tippin, but it was a big hit. Nobody thought what I thought. One thing's for sure I've learned about this music business: I don't know much."
Yet, he knows music. To wit, check out Tippin's latest album, the multi-faceted "People Like Us." Balanced between country's more traditional base and its so-called new country sound, its 11 taut tunes walk a high-wire that seems quite unsteady these days.
"I think there'a whole bunch of records on here to turn loose as singles, but you know I like to take it one at a time," Tippin says. "The next one is gonna be 'People Like Us.' After that, I don't know. I could not have to record in two years, but then I may be back at the drawing board in six months."
But who are the "People Like Us?"
"Me and you," the Pensacola, Fla. native says. "It's just the every day guy or gal who gets up every day to work, comes home and shares the same beliefs and freedoms and rights that I do. I guess I can say people like us because I've had songs like 'You've Got to Stand for Something' and 'Workin' Man's Ph. D.' Stuff like that. I think those are the people who are like us."
And those "people like us" live in the country, listen to the country and love the country, says Tippin, who grew up in South Carolina.
"I kind of like the boonies," Tippin says of his rural Tennessee home. "You know, I kind of had to live in town in the beginning of this music thing, but as soon as I got to where I could afford it, I left. The town don't like the country."
And Tippin likes his country, well, country. His favorites: Hank Williams, Hank Thompson, Lefty Frizzell and the like, legendary music by legendary figures whose marks left wide a gaping path across which numerous country crooners traversed.
"I was up at the store (Tippin's gun store in Smithville, Aaron Tippin's Outdoors) this mornin, and there's a station out of Sparta (Tenn.), and they play the old classics," Tippin says. "Boy, we sat there this morning, 5:30 in the morning, listening to that and I was thinking, 'now that's country music.'"
Yet, the onetime RCA Records proudly country artist was deemed too country by some at that label. Shortly after the label signed him, Tippin says, the label sent him to a vocal coach. It seemed his vocals has too much nasal twang, therefore he was too country.
"They tried to send me to a voice coach so that I wouldn't sing so country," Tippin says. "I won't mention their names, but they told me that I needed to quit singing through my nose so much and to sing down in my throat deeper."
Tippin mostly complied, much to the detriment of his vocal cords. Coupled with not singing naturally, he says that he would often yell above his tractor's noise without giving thought to the possible damage that that was causing. Instead, he unknowingly exacerbated the problem.
"A couple years ago, I had some real vocal problems," Tippin says. "I lost my voice."
As with many of his peers like Kathy Mattea, Tippin visited a doctor at Nashville's Vanderbilt's Voice Clinic.
"They said I'd damaged one of my vocal cords, that I'd ruptured a blood vessel on my vocal cord."
Tippin, who was in the middle of a tour, decided with his doctors to delay any operational work until the tour's end. In lieu of an immediate medical procedure, doctors taught Tippin some vocal exercises to help his cords heal.
"Reluctantly, I said okay. So, they took me in there, and (the doctor) said, 'can't you feel the resonance in your cheeks and face?'" Tippin says.
"He said, 'Aaron, you need to move your voice up in your face, right there right around your nose. That's where you need to be singing. That way if you sing up in the top of your voice, that keeps the damage down on your vocal cords. Because when you're putting all that pressure directly down in your voice, you're putting more strain on your vocal cords.
"So, I started going back to singing like I did 10 years ago before they told me not to, and now I don't have any problems holding up during a show, and I learned that singing is not drag racing," Tippin says. "You don't wind her up and sing for 3 minutes and 30 seconds as hard as you can possibly go."
As a result of the change in singing style, Tippin's voice is in a much lower key on his new album.
"I picked the lowest possible key that I could because I thought it sounded kind of unique down there. It sounded different," he says. "Thanks to the Vanderbilt Voice Clinic, they probably added 20 years to this ol' career. When I first came to town, everybody was saying, 'well, he's a little too country for country music.'"
"I probably shouldn't say (this), but I do think (it's) true: I don't think there's as much country music fans at the helm as there used to be," Tippin says. "Years ago, I think the execs were lovers of country music and were very, very proud of it."
But no one questions Tippin's love for the music.
"Country music is an art form," he says.