When Aaron Tippin is off the road, you can usually find him hard at work in his office near Music Row, a framed picture of Hank Williams at his back and a well-worn laptop computer purring at his right elbow. In his matter-of-fact blending of the new and the old, he is a perfect symbol for country music today; and behind the blue-collar proclamations and Muscle Beach physique stands an extremely thoughtful, refreshingly humble superstar.
Tippin's third and newest album is Call Of The Wild, a collection of emotionally intense testimonials on the themes of hard work, hard partying, unshakeable devotion and unblinking pride in self and place. Not only did Tippin co-write all the songs, he also "field tested" them for album worthiness while on tour.
In Tippin's eyes, fans are the most precious career counselors as artist can ask for. "If an artist doesn't know what works for him, he's not doing something right," Tippin asserts. "He should be the most in-touch person there is. He's out there on stage every night. He hears the audience scream when he does a good song, and he hears them clap politely when he does a bad one. If he signs autographs -- like I do -- the fans will come through the line and tell you what they like. They'll do it every night. And the funny thing is, they know exactly what they like. All you have to do is be smart enough to listen to them."
Even more basic to the fan-pleasing equation, Tippin maintains, is finding one's own artistic identity and then projecting it clearly to the listeners. "It's the artist's obligation to create great songs," he says, "or to find great songs that say exactly who he is. I used to think that being a singer/songwriter was a whole lot tougher than just being a singer. But I've found out that even through writing in more work, it's a whole lot easier when you're getting ready to put an album together. You don't have to scan all over town, hunting for songs that will say something just like you want to say. It's important to know that you said something exactly like you wanted to."
In late 1990, Tippin marched into country music with his tough-minded single, "You've Got To Stand For Something." Many people heard it as a battle cry for the war America was then waging against Iraq. But Tippin had written it simply as an affirmation of personal integrity. That is a subject dear to his heart and one that he weaves into every album. On his platinum Read Between The Lines, it surfaces in "I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way," and on Call Of The Wild, it's in "Trim Yourself To Fit The World."
"People who wander around without good spikes in their shoes, I don't believe are ever happy," Tippin observes. "I think that standing there in the middle of the storm -- knowing that it's going to be over and that you stayed until it was -- has a lot of value to it. Being a feather in the wind is not much of a way for a person to live."
When Tippin sings about the worth and dignity of common labor -- which is the topic of "Working Man's Ph.D., "his first single from the new album -- he draws from his own experiences. "I did mostly manual labor to support my musical career," he says, and that's what's led to this blue-collar feel in my songs." Growing up in his native South Carolina, Tippin worked on farms and in his father's air-service business. He spent the money he earned around the family's air taxi and maintenance facility on flying lessons and wound up being a corporate pilot for a while. But music exerted a stronger pull that professional aviation. After he gained more confidence in his music, Tippin moved to Nashville and became a staff songwriter at Acuff-Rose, where Hank Williams once wrote. But Tippin wrote and sang in relative obscurity for five more years before RCA Records spotted and signed him.
In spite of the easy-going, devil-may-care image he projects on stage and in his music videos, Tippin is a man who dwells on and savors the smallest details of life. He admits that he tends to dissect and analyze everything he encounters. "I'm amazed that people can drive down the highway at 60 miles an hour in a machine and not find that significant. That's why I love airplanes. I still cannot believe that a machine can leave the ground -- just leap off the earth and fly away. That's incredible! I've never gotten over that. I can be talking to the President of the United States, and if an airplane comes over, I'm going to stop talking, because I've got to look at that thing."
He is just as concerned and meticulous when it comes to planning his albums. "I go in with the intention of putting pieces together that I want to fit as a package. I'll pick subjects and write four or five songs about them and let the strongest ones surface. I wrote 34 songs to get the 10 for this album. I had the ideas in mind last year of what I wanted to say and do in this project. That was already there. It was just a matter of filling in the holes. I'm always searching for that idea that will lead me to a great song."
For Call Of The Wild, Tippin chose Scott Hendricks to be his producer. Hendricks was a major force behind launching Restless Heart and, later, Alan Jackson and Brooks and Dunn. "I'm always trying to learn," Tippin says, in explaining his switch from Emory Gordy Jr., who produced his first two albums, to Hendricks. "I thought Emory did a great job. I just wanted to see if my music could go anywhere else. I think Scott's put a little different taste to it. I loved to hear his records on the radio. They have a different sound. I wanted it on my record."
For Tippin, each new album has marked a clear stage of development. He says he was just beginning to accumulate a store of songs to draw from when he recorded You've Got To Stand For Something -- enough to provide him a career-launching first single and a series of strong followups. Read Between The Lines, he continues, gave him the opportunity to project a solid artistic identity and to determine if his musical instincts were pointing him in the right direction. The successes of "There Ain't Nothin' Wrong With The Radio," "I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way" and "My Blue Angel" proved that they were.
"I think Call Of The Wild is my dawning," Tippin concludes. "It shows I've passed the storm."