Five million albums down the road, Aaron Tippin finds himself governed by twin passions. One is the clear path that has always captured his imagination.
"I still love playing for the folks," he says. "I love to see people loving the old songs, and to hear them roar when we've done a good job."
The other, embodied in his wife Thea, daughter Charla, and son Teddy, gives purpose to it all.
"After all is said and done," he says, "I depend on my family. That's the most wonderful part of my life, and the real saving grace to me."
Now, more than ever before, Aaron has been able to bring the two together in the grooves of his latest CD, People Like Us. Musically, lyrically, and thematically, the CD amounts to a state-of-the-Aaron document, one that he is undeniably proud of.
"No matter what this record does in terms of the history of country music," he says earnestly, "this is the one I'll always enjoy because it's full of the important things in my history -- my music and my family."
Two of the project's songs -- "Kiss This" and "The Best Love We Ever Made," -- were co-written by Aaron and Thea, and two songs feature vocals by family members. Thea does a moving duet with Aaron on "The Best Love We Ever Made," and Teddy ends a rollicking "Big Boy Toys" -- his favorite on the album -- by saying the title in his two-and-a-half-year-old voice close enough to a microphone to make the cut.
As befitting a family-written song, "The Best Love We Ever Made" makes it clear that love's most treasured outcome for parents is the child or children it produced. Aaron calls it "one of the best songs I've ever written."
"Kiss This," the other Aaron/Thea composition, is vintage Aaron Tippin, full of honky-tonk attitude. The rowdy side is further represented by the title cut, co-written by David Lee Murphy and Kim Tribble, and "Big Boy Toys," co-written by Aaron and Buddy Brock. Aaron's tender side is showcased in songs like "And I Love You," "Always Was," and "I'd Be Afraid Of Losing You." In addition, Aaron, who has given us anthems to working people, adds another to the genre with an anthem to single mothers called "Twenty-Nine And Holding."
Produced by Aaron with Biff Watson and Mike Bradley, the album brings together all the dichotomies that make up Aaron in to a unified whole, and reflects a hard-won philosophy for the South Carolina native.
"I used to want every record to read like a novel, to follow a theme," he says. "Now, I just want to put together the greatest songs I can find."
Aaron's music has always been a mixture of tough and tender, romantic and philosophical. His first hit, "You've Got To Stand For Something," established him as an artist with something to say, and showed that he has a compelling pure country voice to say it with. The record went Top Five, and has since been spun more than two million times on radio. As importantly, it helped establish a fanatic fan base that has been with him through thick and thin ever since.
The hits came regularly. "There's Ain't Nothing Wrong With The Radio," a song about a car tht became a country anthem, soared to #1 and cemented Aaron's relationship with rowdy fans everywhere. "My Blue Angel" was a classic country that established Aaron as a vocalist with an achingly personal style. "Working Man's Ph.D.," "I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way," and "That's As Close As I'll Get To Loving You" expanded both his fan base and his reputation.
Then, though, there was a period where the hits were harder in coming, and Aaron and his former label parted ways.
"I wasn't sure I wanted to cut records anymore," he says. "The last couple albums I had done, we were cutting all outside material, and it didn't feel like there was much Aaron in the records." For two years, though he was without a label deal, his fans remained steadfast. They recognized in Aaron a kindred spirit, and with or without current singles, he spoke to them musically as few artists had before; his concerts remained spirited excursions into some of the best and most authentic live country music anywhere. Then, as Lyric Street Records was getting established in Nashville, he got a call inquiring about his interest in a new label deal.
"One thing they really wanted was for my writing to be a bigger part of my career," he says. "They also wanted me to co-produce my first album for them. I thought, 'Maybe these guys really fo want Aaron Music.'"
They did indeed. The first Tippin/Lyric Street collaboration featured "For You I Will," which strengthened Aaron's bond with his fans and opened new chapters in both creativity and chart success that continue with People Like Us.
Aaron's career successes have brought him a long way from the South Carolina mountains where he grew up. His pilot father helped pass along a love of flying, but Aaron took naturally to country music. While his friends were listening to arena rock, Aaron was playing the honky-tonks. After his teenage marriage ended, he moved to Nashville and threw himself into music.
He competed on the Nashville Network's "You Can Be A Star," landed a publishing deal, and took up a now-legendary regime, working the midnight shift in a Kentucky factory, writing songs on Music Row during the day, and indulging a passion for weight-lifting in the afternoons.
As he began winning weight-lifting competitions, his songs were being recorded by Charlie Pride, David Ball, Mark Collie, and others. Soon, his first nightclub show in Nashville earned his a recording contract. He toured with Reba McIntire, Brooks and Dunn, and Hank Williams, Jr. and launched his remarkable career.
Many of the elements of that life are still there. Weight-lifting is part of a workout regimen both he and Thea still carry on, and his musical tastes remain similar.
"Musically, I'm still about the same guy," he says. "I'm still about classic country, I'm still a big fan of the big bands, and I still love bluegrass."
The business side, while it requires work, is, he says, "a pretty well-greased train, and it rolls down the track pretty steady." He is doing about 90 dates a year, everywhere from big arenas, festivals, and fairs, to small theaters and casino stages.
"Then, every once in a while, we get to go back and do a little honky-tonk playing," he says. "I still enjoy that, because that's where I came from, and on Friday night, when they're out there having a good time, there isn't a much better place to be."
During his down-time, he and his family live on a 300-acre farm well outside Nashville.
"I think the greatest gift a child could have is being raised out in the boonies, because there's so much to learn from nature, and from learning to make some of your own fun," he says.
He is a major fan of the "boonies" himself.
"That's the most wonderful part of my life, the real saving grace to me," he says. "When I'm really frustrated, I can go to the house and grill some chicken and look out over the Tennessee hills and see if I can hear any turkeys gobbling out there."
Aaron's life has been the life of a journeyman, filled with scrapes and scars, requiring a ton of toil to produce every ounce of glamour, but he has made peace with the process.
"I've changed a lot since the early years," he says. "I think I've learned to take the good and bad in stride, and to let the heartache roll off my back. Not every song is going to be a hit, and you learn that what you've got to do is keep moving on. When the record isn't going so well, I can still write another new song or have a great day on the tractor out on the farm. You learn to make good out of what you can."
There is, at bottom, though, one part of show business that doesn't grow old for him, and that he knows is in his hands.
"No matter what," he says, "when I go out there on that stage, I can be absolutely in control of what goes on for that hour, and when we get to the end and I've really got 'em, boy, that's when I prove to myself I've still got what it takes to entertain people."
"And that," he adds with smiling self-assurance, "is very fulfilling."