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Aaron Tippin takes musical voyage home

Union County Bureau

Before he had his "Working Man's Ph.D." or even a record deal, Blue Ridge native Aaron Tippin had a hero. His name is Mickey Fowler, and for years, say those who know him, he was the Upstate's resident country "outlaw," a physically imposing master singer of "hard country" songs by the likes of Waylon Jennings and Hank Williams Jr.

"Mickey Fowler to me is the greatest unsung country singer ever," Tippin gushed during an interview from his residence outside Nashville. "He's it."

During the early 1980s, Tippin spent time in Upstate honky-tonks learning all he could from Fowler, who still lives in Greenville.

Tippin, like his dad before him, was working as a pilot, flying area corporate executives on business trips. In his free time, Tippin left the company of the suits and headed to local bars, where his outlaw mentor Fowler was often joined by some of the area's best pickers, including Toy Caldwell of the Marshall Tucker Band.

Tippin played, too.

Greenville-based steel guitarist Mike Bagwell, who remains friends with Tippin's longtime steel player Larry Nally, shared the stage with Tippin numerous times.

" 'Tip' -- that's what everybody called him," Bagwell recalled.

Bagwell remembers Tippin as "a hell of an entertainer" who had trouble attracting crowds among an Upstate public then overexposed to Top 40 rock and slick sounds of the "Urban Cowboy" era.

Like his hero Fowler, Tippin, now short-haired and relatively clean-cut, was one who favored the outlaw image and sound, Bagwell said. "He wore a dirty cowboy hat and had long hair played banjo back then."

Making it in the music business, of course, is about more than talent; ambition, attention to detail and luck -- and sometimes comprise -- must be part of the mix.

Whatever the reasons, Fowler never hit it big.

Tippin did.

He says it started with the collapse of his marriage: "With that, I kind of ran out of excuses not to go for it."

So, Tippin moved to Nashville, where his traditionalist leanings were up against the more commercially viable country-pop sounds of the day. It took four years of recording demo tapes and earning cuts as a songwriter before he netted a record deal with RCA.

Seven albums and three No. 1 hits later, including "Kiss This," from his latest release, "People Like Us," Tippin says he's learned that making records is "a teamwork deal" with producers and executives whose job is consider the marketability, not the integrity, of the music.

"When you're young and stupid and your record's not selling, you think it's everybody else's fault," Tippin said. "But I've learned it's a team effort to get the machine going in the right direction."

The RCA machine, however, ultimately tried to get Tippin going in a direction he didn't want to go -- away from his honky-tonk roots.

So he found a home for his harder edge sounds on Lyric Street Records.

Which is not to say that Lyric Street or Tippin are primed to lead an outlaw Renaissance: label-mates include SHeDAISY, an all-girl "hot country" group that has more in common with the Spice Girls than Loretta Lynn. But Tippin's albums maintain a grit and grind not often heard these days in the country mainstream.

In Tippin's view, his recent work is some of his best: "This one feels especially good. It's my new favorite album."

Saturday, he heads home to Upstate South Carolina for a concert at the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. Though he's been to Greenville plenty of times, this will be Tippin's first concert at Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium, said general manager Steve Jones.

"It's going to be like a family reunion. He's got a lot of family coming," Jones said.

Opening the show will be country-rocker Clay Davidson.

If Tippin, 42, remarried and father of three, by now represents the old guard of the hard-country sound, Davidson may be the most promising up-and-comer.

Like the more established Montgomery Gentry, Davidson is part of the bluesy southern rock thread -- think Hank Jr. and Charlie Daniels -- that has run through country music since the 1970s.

The 29-year-old Saltville, Va., native whose career was given a boost by a 1995 performance on "The Charlie Daniels Talent Round-Up," names Stevie Ray Vaughan, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Spartanburg's Marshall Tucker Band as influences.

Late Lynyrd Skynyrd front man Ronnie Van Zandt, in particular, is his songwriting hero.

"It's just about real everyday life," Davidson said. "I like songs you can walk through as you hear them."

Davidson co-wrote most of the tunes on his debut album, "Unconditional," which contains plenty of Skynyrd-style grooves (the prettified title track is an exception).

For all his Southern Rock influences, Davidson was exposed to a healthy measure of country greats as a kid.

"I had an uncle who was a Merle Haggard and Don Williams fanatic," he recalled. "I was raised up on Merle and Don and Bocephus and Waylon."

Free time in Davidson's home was spent with friends and relatives picking guitar and singing. Davidson was given his first guitar at age 5 and "was addicted to it from the start."

Music is the only full-time job Davidson's ever had, and it's been a fruitful one.

Commercially, his career is just beginning to hit its stride.

But more than that, Davidson talks about success as measured by experiences -- from playing on a Grand Ole Opry show in its old home, the Ryman Auditorium, to jamming onstage with the current version of the Marshall Tucker Band.

For Davidson, a trip to Spartanburg is a glimpse into the history of southern rock.

For Tippin, who expects to be up all night signing autographs and hanging out with old pals, it'll just be a trip back home and a reunion with his musical roots.

"You've Got To Stand For Something," 1990, Gold

"Read Between The Lines," 1992, Platinum

"Call of the Wild," 1993, Gold

"Lookin' Back At Myself," 1994, Gold

"Greatest Hits," 1997, Gold

"What This Country Needs," 1998

"People Like Us," 2000

Top 10 singles
"There Ain't Nothing Wrong With The Radio"

"I Wouldn't Have It Any Other Way"

"Kiss This"

Fast facts
How did Aaron Tippin develop his great vocal chords?

He began singing as a child while bailing hay, running combines and plowing the back 40. In order to hear himself over the diesel engine of the tractor, he had to develop some pretty strong vocal cords.

Where did Tippin grow up?

His hometown is Blue Ridge, but he went to high school in Greer. He played football and ran track.

Was a career as a singer always in Tippin's future?

He used to work with his dad at the airport so he learned how to fly and work on planes.

Bet you didn't know this:

Tippin was a multi-engine instrument commercial pilot and flew as a freelance and corporate pilot in route to becoming a major airline pilot.

When did Tippin leave planes for Nashville?

Aaron moved to Nashville in 1986, started songwriting pretty heavy and began his quest for a record deal. In 1990, he signed with RCA Records and went on to release one platinum and four gold albums. In 1998, he signed with Disney's Lyric Street Records. His first album on Lyric Street, was titled "What This Country Needs."


DeKalb County, Tennessee, in a log home on 300 acres of prime hunting and farming land


Wife Thea (married July 15, 1995), daughter Charla (born October 23, 1977, son Teddy (born December 14, 1997)


July 3


Weight lifting/body building, deer and turkey hunting

Previous jobs:

Farm hand, factory worker, airplane pilot, heavy equipment operator, welder, truck driver, songwriter


Baker Maultsby can be reached at or 582-4511, Ext. 7425.

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Feb 10, 2001

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