BY ELLEN ELDRIDGE/AJC Staff Writer
Like driving over a concrete median in a divided highway, Aaron Lewis changed genres from heavy rock music to the classic county he grew up hearing his grandfather play in the house.
But the songwriter says a natural progression more than a conscious decision led to his new sound. He’s changed, as anyone trying to figure out his place in the world would, and his songs are merely snapshots of his journey along the way, Lewis says.
“I’m coming up on 45 and I’m not as outwardly angry as I used to be as a younger man and, honestly, those songs that I wrote back then in the beginning were part of a growth process,” Lewis says.
Fans who want to understand that process can learn more about the songwriter from his songs than anywhere else.
“In a bit of a riddle, the things that I’ve shared over the years in my songs are way deeper and way more obtrusive than I would ever go into in a conversation with somebody,” the singer says.
Lewis is set to play a sold out show Friday at The Buckhead Theatre, beginning with a full country band playing his new material before returning to the stage for an acoustic act.
On the last leg of the “Sinner” tour, Lewis paid homage to passed away legends such as Leonard Cohen and Prince. But “Hallelujah” and “When Doves Cry” won’t return to the set list this year, he says. Instead, he’ll memorialize another fallen star from late 2016.
“A song has to mean something to me in order to play it,” Lewis said.
His lyrical material and power with ballads hasn’t faded in his country career, though he’s able to relax and write songs about going to the beach with his daughters.
Lewis admitted he resisted before eventually conceding to add “Endless Summer” to his second full-length solo release. “There’s not a sad moment on it,” he says. “I didn’t want to record it because of how poppy it was.”
As much as his tortured-soul songs drove Staind, the hard rock band he helped form in the mid-1990s, Lewis says he got to a point where he didn’t want to do it anymore because of the state of mind he needed to be in to deliver on the song’s meaning.
“I wrote all those songs and they’re pieces of my broken psyche,” he says. “But I didn’t want to shred my soul every single night on stage anymore.”
He sees himself as a songwriter. Lewis considers it a gift, his ability to hear a profound statement from a friend or passerby that sparks the idea for an entire song.
“I’m supposed to write songs,” he says. “It’s way too easy for me for this to not be what I’m supposed to be doing.”
One such song on “Sinner,” his second full-length country album released last September on Dot Records, is “I Lost It All.”
It opens with a line etched by a knife on the back of a Zippo lighter. A soldier in Vietnam carved the words, “When I die I’ll go to heaven because I’ve spent my time in hell.” Though the line triggered the song, it doesn’t define it, Lewis says. His song reflects a deeper meaning; another snapshot of his life.
“This career that has given me more than I’ve ever imagined has also cost me anything and everything that’s ever meant anything to me,” he says. “Everything.”
Lewis never served his country in the armed forces, but he says he wanted to.
“I wanted to go military when I graduated high school,” Lewis says. “That was the strongest option I had.”
The movie “Saving Private Ryan” was about four Ryan brothers, but the Lewis family had six brothers all serving in World War II — Lewis’ great uncles. His father, who served in the Army Corps of Engineers during Vietnam, discouraged Lewis from signing up.
“And that was at the beginning of Operation Desert Storm,” Lewis said.
Since then, he’s felt guilty and tries to let those who serve know he appreciates it.
Despite not having written a song about a soldier, Lewis and his then 13-year-old daughter recorded “Traveling Soldier” by Dixie Chicks as a sort of daddy-daughter moment that could never be taken away.
Lewis said he made the suggestion and chose the song because daughter Zoe Jane Lewis had sung it with confidence several times around the house.
“She had never heard her voice in headphones, but she went into that studio and sang it three times and she was done,” Lewis said. “She just nailed it like a seasoned professional.”
Though he says his daughter has only seen the music industry take her daddy away from home, if Zoe Jane decided to pursue a music career, he’d stay “cautiously optimistic.”
As for his own career, Lewis is steadily gaining ground and respect in the country community, converting the Staind fans walking the same crazy path as he.
IF YOU GO
8 p.m. Jan. 20. Sold out. Buckhead Theatre, 3110 Roswell Road, Atlanta. 1-800-745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com.