Recording for the 'Rhettnecks'

Friday, September 13, 2002

In 1995, Rhett Akins arrived on the country music scene with the Top 10 hit "That Ain't My Truck," a song about the feeling of seeing someone else's truck in your girl's driveway. A few years and not enough hits later, he was a country music star without a record deal. The feeling was familiar.

But Akins still had plenty of fans who call themselves Rhettnecks and still loved making music. Being dumped by the Nashville establishment was the best thing that could have happened to him, he says.

"You don't have the freedom to do what you want to. They're concerned about what you wear and what you say. What being an artist is about is being an individual."

Tonight Akins will team with fellow country singers Daryle Singletary and Wade Hayes at the SEMO District Fair in a concert billed as the Honky-Tonk Tailgate Party. The Southern rock band 38 Special concludes the fair concerts with an 8 p.m. concert Saturday.

Akins remembers the moment he knew he wanted to be a musician. He was 5 or 6 years old and riding in his uncle's truck. His uncle was steering with his knees and playing air guitar, probably to a Led Zeppelin song.

"There was something so cool about watching him make those facial expressions while driving," Akins said in a phone interview from a tour stop in Atlanta, Ga. "I knew I wanted to be a guitar player."

Akins had an all-American youth. He grew up on a farm in Valdosta, Ga., played quarterback and centerfield for his high school teams, rode motorcycles and liked hunting and fishing. He went to college awhile and got married at 20 before he finally went to Nashville two years later.

Usually, musicians go to Nashville despite the best advice of their family and friends. In Akins' case, his family was behind him but he was reluctant to take the chance.

"My whole family wanted me to move," Akins said. "I'm telling them how crazy they were."

He went to Nashville anyway and got a job singing at Opryland, where a talent scout heard him and signed him. "I'm the luckiest guy ever," he says. "So many talented people live in Nashville, and they've been here for years. It's hard to say why and who gets picked."

Three albums followed but only one No. 1 hit, "Don't Get me Started." Then Decca, his record company, folded.

He was disappointed but says, "In some ways I was glad. I really needed a break. I'd been on the road for three or four years straight. ... As soon as you get off the road, you haven't seen your kids, you've got to write a song. An album is due the next month."

Akins relaxed and wrote songs because he wanted to, not because he had to. He recorded his current album, "Friday Night in Dixie," in his own studio.

"I wanted to make for the first time in my life an album the way I wanted to make it without people in suits and ties sticking their head in and telling me how -- and they can't play a guitar," he said.

He did it like his heroes, Charlie Daniels and Willie Nelson, did. The title tune was co-written with Daniels.

Akins can't read music and sometimes wishes he could. "I always put on a Hank Williams record when I'm feeling bad about it," he said. "Hank only knew three chords. For some reason they're still playing his songs."

At first he just sold the CD through his Web site, just as many independent rock acts do. It sold well for six months with no advertising, so Akins decided to sign with Audium to see what some national promotion could do.

Audium is the same label Charlie Daniels, Sammy Kershaw, Doug Stone, Singletary and Loretta Lynn are on. "Everybody knows who they are as an artist," he says.

The Honky-tonk Tailgate Park is two straight hours of honky-tonk music. We all grew up playing in bars and listening to Willie and Waylon," Akins said. "Whether it's a casino or a fairground, we turn it into a Saturday night."

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