From the Vault: Aaron Tippin (1999)
Originally published in the April 6, 1999 issue of Country Weekly featuring the ladies of country music on the cover. This story is presented here in its entirety.
Aaron Tippin's bus is rolling down Interstate 40 en route to a concert in Caruthersville, Mo. He’s smiling. “I wish it could have been like this the first time around,” Aaron says. “When I left my old label two years ago I wasn't sure I wanted to keep doing this. Good things were happening at home. I got a new baby, my daughter came to live with us. My home life got tugging at me pretty hard. ‘Shoot,’ I thought, ‘I could just write songs and stay home.’ But I figured the right thing to do was get back into it.” Aaron obviously made the right call. The first single “For You I Will,” from his comeback album What This Country Needs, scored Top 10 and his latest I’m Leaving is climbing fast.
As West Tennessee goes by in a blur, Aaron shares with Country Weekly his joy at earning a second chance with Lyric Street Records. “Starting over there’s always that freshness. It really feels good,” says Aaron. “So I’m going to see how long I can make this last. The folks at Lyric Street wanted me to play a bigger part in my career. They wanted me to co-produce my own records and write more. I wanted to do what I’ve learned and put it into practice. And I also wanted to prove that we can still have record success and hit songs.”
With 15 hit singles under his belt, Aaron knows a good song when he hears one. But he admits he was unimpressed when he first heard “I’m Leaving.” “Billy Craven, my manager, brought it to me and said it’s a song I ought to listen to,” Aaron explains. “I thought, ‘Big deal, big deal, so what—she’s leaving, who cares?’ Then, bam! It got to the chorus and just killed me.”
“The label's letting me pick my own material. That's something I've never been able to do before. Now I'm able to pick the songs that appeal to me." The bus crosses the mighty Mississippi and pulls into Caruthersville where Aaron has a one-nighter this evening at the Casino Aztar. Like most country stars the road is a way of life for Aaron. “Earlier in my career I worked up to 200 dates per year. It was almost constant travel. I love to get out here and work. But that was too much," he says. "We've cut it back to 90 dates." Aaron feels responsible for his road family. “These guys need to get paid," Aaron says, referring to his band and crew. "They want work and I try to give them enough to make a living off of it." Of course the road is not without its perils. "We've seen some really bad weather," says Aaron. "One time in Arkansas our former driver Robert “Smithy” Smith saw a tornado coming toward us in the middle of night. We were in bed asleep. He pulled the bus under a bridge and we rode it out. It was pretty scary. “Another time we were in three feet of snow in Nova Scotia and our bus was sliding around like a sled. But 'Smithy' got us through. We once figured out that he's traveled far enough to go 'round the world eight times. He's driven Faron Young, Ernest Tubb and B. J. Thomas." Even though Aaron's in good hands on the road, he always feels the pull of home and his wife Thea, 15-month-old son Teddy and daughter Charla, 21. “Going on the road is a tug of war because I love to be at home with Thea and the kids," he says. Aaron smiles as he describes how Teddy mimics his exercise routine. "He's always watching me. There's a 60-pound dumbbell laying on the floor and he tries to pick it up, but he can't. “So I get the five-pound dumbbell and lay it on the floor. Teddy reaches for it, squats down, gets it with both hands and lifts it up." Aaron has trimmed down his muscular figure thanks to a new protein power diet. "I eat meat, úcheese and eggs but no bread. I lost 15 pounds in a month and a half on this diet." Aaron has made his bus into a home away from home. A commercial pilot, Aaron often thumbs through the stacks of aviation magazines in his spare time. The singer owns four planes based at the Smithville, Tenn., airport. Aaron, his band and crew also pass the time watching videos like City Heat with Clint Eastwood and Leslie Nielsen’s Spy Hard. Playing cards and Yahtzee also help.
Two large glass jars crammed with Tootsie Rolls and Bazooka bubblegum provide sweet treats. úBut not for the boss. "I'm sugar free now," Aaron admits. "Can't chew no Bazooka." Aaron's rolling motel features 12 bunks, a bedroom and a lounge and kitchen area. Aaron úsometimes takes the wheel himself to relieve their new driver, David Sloas. úThere's also an 18-wheeler truck with a large portrait of Aaron on it's side which carries the band's equipment. úMeanwhile, the bus rolls up to the casino and Aaron and the band prepare for the soundcheck. Backed by a six-man group, Aaron runs through the songs he'll perform during the night's two shows. “Let's drop the tag on 'The Way You Look Tonight,' " he says of the Frank Sinatra classic he's covering. "Take it from the E-flat part." While Aaron rehearses, several fans peer through the doorway, catching their favorite star in action. He strides across the stage, getting a feel for the room. “That's good," Aaron says to the sound man. "This gives us a chance to work on new stuff and make adjustments in the show. “We've been doing a 70-minute show and need to do a 60-minute one. So there are some changes we need to make. If you run over it just once, it sure helps a lot." It's time for the first show of the night, and a long line of Tippin fans snakes into the building. He's wearing a cowboy hat, white shirt, jeans and a coat. After the first tune, the hat comes off. Soon the shirt comes off, too, and he's down to his T-shirt. He launches into a sprightly version of "Whole Lotta Love on the Line." The song draws loud applause. "You know, that was out of the past," he tells the crowd. "It makes me feel good that y'all remember the old stuff." While singing "Working Man's Ph.D." Aaron shows off his other skills assembling a bicycle in five minutes flat. "We give away one during each show to Toys for Tots," he notes. Following the last show, Aaron greets his fans, signs autographs and poses for photos. "We've been following him for nine years. He makes everybody feel like family," says Brenda Cleveland of Keokuk, Iowa, after getting a hug from her favorite star. "That's what we are—one big úfamily."
Aaron has a special reason to admire his fans. "Even when we weren't on the radio, we were still out here playing shows. You keep going. So it's nice to have a big record again for folks who have followed us." One of the songs he co-wrote on the new album, "You're the Only Reason for Me," is a tribute to his fans. "It's written for them," says Aaron, "and when they hear it, they'll probably get the picture." úAfter the last of the equipment is stowed, the bus heads to Nashville shortly after midnight. Aaron makes certain that the band members are well fed. A dozen boxes of large pizzas are stacked on a table, and they're quickly attacked. “This is after-show food for the crew," explains Aaron. "But they're kind enough to share it with the rest of us. Sometimes it's pizza. Sometimes it's a load of hot dogs from Pete's down in South Carolina. We've had some pretty good eating on this little run." Discussion of food reminds the band of a recent trip to Aaron's hometown of Greenville, S.C. where he showed off the local eateries. “He took us to all these little hot dog and hamburger places," recalls bass player Mark Johnson, "and we did nothing except eat for three days!" “After our final meal, Aaron told us, 'I've got one more place down the road I want to take you to.' The bus driver looked at him and said, 'You know, even a pig won't eat if he ain't hungry. As the bus crosses the Mississippi into Tennessee, Aaron remembers some of the livelier moments on the road. “Once in Utah, I stopped the bus in the desert to take a break. Billy and I got off first and warned the guys, "Look out for the snakes!" “I whispered to Billy that I was undoing my belt and throwing it down in the sand. When the guys got close, Billy reached down, grabbed the belt and shook it. I yelled, 'He's got a snake!' Man, those guys scattered! Mark Johnson took off running down the side of the road to the next exit." The band members laugh. Aaron is tired, but happy. “When it works, it's fun," he says. "When it's all done for the love of the music and performing, it's great. That's what's important. This whole project was done for love. “And that really makes a difference."