SAFFORD - Aaron Tippin has enjoyed the limousines, bright lights and fame that come with being a successful country music star.
''I'm kind of at the point now where I go to the awards ceremonies and just sit there looking around like a fan, thinking, 'Wow, I'm down at the front,' '' Tippin said Tuesday evening after a plate of barbecue following the first day of the Buckmasters American Deer Foundation ''Life Hunt'' for disabled hunters at Alabama's Sedgefield Plantation.
But a USO Tour last Thanksgiving at four U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kurdistan and Qatar helped open the eyes of the Southern-born and bred singer.
The first thing Tippin saw when his plane was landing at the base in Afghanistan was a destroyed Russian airliner pushed to the end of the runway.
Other military debris littered the edge of the airstrip, a grim reminder of the ravages of war and decades of strife in the former Eastern Bloc countries and Middle East.
''You look around and see these kids who are 19-23 years old, and I'm 45 so they're kids to me, and it's spooky what is still in front of their lives,'' Tippin said. ''You appreciate our country. Man, do you appreciate what we have. You didn't have to get 10 minutes offshore to realize just what we have here.''
It wasn't the first USO Tour for Tippin, who was born north of Greenville, S.C., and now lives close to Smithville, Tenn., near Center Hill Lake. He toured Saudi Arabia in 1990 with Bob Hope on the legendary performer's final military tour. That was the year Tippin had signed his first recording contract, with RCA, and burst on the scene with the toe-tapping ''You Gotta Stand for Something.''
The song ''had a lot of my father in it,'' Tippin said, referring to his 75-year-old father, Tip. A flight instructor for the Air Force, the elder Tippin had groomed his son to be a pilot. At the age of 16, Aaron had soloed and a few years later was a commercial pilot.
The energy crunch of the 1970s sidelined that career, though, and he turned to music as a secondary job while working at an aluminum rolling mill in Kentucky, 60 miles north of Nashville.
''I worked the midnight shift, would go home and shower, then drive to Nashville and write songs until about 2 o'clock,'' Tippin said. ''Then I'd go home, take a nap and go back to the mill. I did that for two years and sang in honky-tonks some at night.''
The rocket was lit, though, with his first hit single, and Tippin hasn't looked back.
An intense on-stage performer and powerful singer, he incorporates a working-man attitude into his songs. Downtime is spent with his two sons, who are 5 and 2, and his wife, Thea. She's an outstanding singer as well and has collaborated on several of his songs.
Tippin enjoys hunting deer and turkey, along with shooting his Colt Anaconda handgun and operating an outdoors retail store in Smithville. His father was the spark for his love of the outdoors.
''I guess I started shooting when I was 4, and dad was a real stickler on safety,'' Tippin said. ''I had to be proficient in everything before I could move on to something else. My dad was a big bird hunter. We had a lot of quail and squirrels, but not many deer. I didn't start deer hunting until I was a teenager.''
Tippin thought of those times overseas last autumn while entertaining our troops. In Pakistan, the Muslim religious holiday Ramadan was under way during one concert. Tippin said nightly gunfire and chanting could be heard near the base, but the show's rowdy round of his hit ''Kiss It'' didn't sit well with the Pakistani celebrants.
Tippin didn't care, and neither did the troops. He'd like to make a return trip this year as well.
''Hopefully in Iraq,'' Tippin said, grinning, ''for the victory celebration.''
Contact outdoors editor Alan Clemons at 532-4435 or firstname.lastname@example.org.