Country singer, songwriter
The story of country music star Rhett Akins’s rise to fame seems the classic rags-to-riches tale. Akins first arrived on the scene in 1995 with his pithy honky-tonk lament, “That Ain’t My Truck,” and his plaintive vocal style quickly earned comparisons to established country icons like George Strait and Garth Brooks. Yet Akins was a relative newcomer to the music industry, a man whose first public performance came when he sang at a wedding—as an adult. “I always wanted be a musician,” Akins admitted in an interview published on the Houston Chronicle Interactive Internet site, “but coming from a small town—and not knowing a soul who had ever gone on to be a singer—it was sort of like wanting to be an astronaut.”
That small town was Valdosta, Georgia, where Akins was born in 1969. He was one of three sons of a local businessman, and football, not music, was his first love—Valdosta’s pigskin season is an important part of the town’s social fabric, and both his father and grandfather had been standout athletes. Akins was involved in the sport early childhood, and eventually played quarterback on the junior varsity team at the University of Georgia. It was an enlightening experience for him, and he left after a year there, knowing he would never play professionally. “I didn’t think I could go any further with football,” Akins told ©Country’s Craig Harris. “I had broken every bone in my body three times. I never had a summer vacation or a spring break. Football was year around, all the time. It was time to move on. I finally got burnt out.”
Music, however, had played an increasing part in Akins’s life as went through his teens. He began playing guitar atthe age of fourteen, inspired by the heavy metal rock his older brothers listened to, and taught himself simply by picking out the right chords. It became an integral part of his life. “I even took my guitar to football camp at school,” Akins said the Houston Chronicle Interactive interview. Hank Williams, Jr. and Lynyrd Skynyrd were favorites, but the coaches would tell Akins to knock it off. “They said, ‘that guitar playing won’t amount to nothing.’”
When Akins left college, he returned to Valdosta, took a job with his father’s oil and gas company, and got married a woman he had known since junior high school. But he also faced what lay ahead—another several decades in Valdosta—and knew it was time to devote his energies to his true passion. A turning point came when he was sitting in a company truck and singing along to the radio; he vowed at that moment that he would be on the radio himself instead someday. He had never sang in public before, but managed to sing a Garth Brooks song at a wedding and realized he could do it. He began playing acoustic guitar locally at the Holiday Inn with afriend, and that led to gigs at Valdosta State University fraternity parties. “I really didn’t know where I was headed in my life,” Akins said of this time in his life in the interview with Harris. “That led me to start venting my feelings through writing songs. I wanted to write songs and play in public.”
In 1992 Akins moved to Nashville, the nucleus of the country music industry. Songwriters and photogenic singing hopefuls were a dime a dozen, but Akins worked consistently to make contacts and find more established songwriters with whom he could collaborate. This led to a publishing deal with Sony Tree Publishing/Fire Hall Music, which enabled him to steadily proffer song-writing agents tunes he had written; sometimes they would give him songs by other writers to try out. Akins sent one of his demos to country music star Mark Chestnutt, who passed it on to his producer. That insider, Mark Wright, also worked with Clint Black and happened to be Decca Record’s head of A&R. Wright brought Akins in to meet acompany vice-president, and on the basis of his voice and songwriting capabilities he was signed.
Akins’s debut on Decca, A Thousand Memories, was released in early 1995. Many of the ten songs—seven of which he wrote himself—reflected a less serious, youthful attitude. “I Brake for Brunettes,” “She Said Yes,” and
Born October 13, 1969, in Valdosta, GA; married Paige, c. 1989; children: Kasey Lee, Thomas Rhett
Began performing as part of a duo in Valdosta, GA; moved to Nashville, TN, 1992; signed publishing deal with Sony Tree Publishing/Fire Hall Music; signed to Decca Records, c. 1993; released first album, A Thousand Memories (includes “That Ain’t My Truck”), January 1995; toured with Reba McEntire, 1995; released Somebody New, 1996, and What Livin ’s All About, Decca, 1998.
Awards: Named one of the Top Ten New Country Artists of the 1995 by Country America magazine.
Addresses: Record company —Decca Records, 60 Music Square East, Nashville, TN 37203.
its biggest hit, “That Ain’t My Truck,” all were representative of Akins’ spirited personality and penchant for lovestruck laments. “When I moved to Nashville, I was twenty-one years old and didn’t know what else to write about but the experiences I had growing up in Georgia,” he told ©Country’s Harris. “That Ain’t My Truck” became a huge country hit for the novice, reaching number three on the Billboard country charts. Written by Tom Shapiro, its lovelorn lyrics told the first-person tragedy of a man who is the loser in a love triangle; his girlfriend had told him she would be making a decision that night, and when he doesn’t hear from her, he drives by her house.
“That Ain’t My Truck” helped Akins land a spot on Country America magazine’s list of the top ten new country artists of 1995. A Thousand Memories also made a respectable showing on the country album charts, reaching number 45. More success came when he sang part of one of his songs, “Where Angels Live,” in the 1995 movie Something to Talk About, a Julia Roberts/Dennis Quaid love story. Still, the new found stardom was a strange experience for the Valdosta native. “There’s isn’t any schooling you could have to prepare for having a record deal, having your songs on the radio and going out on tour,” he told ©Country’s Harris. “I didn’t realize all the little intricacies that go along with being a country singer, and how much of a business this really is.”
For someone who had not sang before an audience until early adulthood, the adjustment may have been a difficult one, but in the competitive world of country music, Akins had little time to lose. For a good part of 1995, Akins played opening dates for country music star Reba McEntire. “I’ve played basically every type of situation you can play—from the smokiest bar in Texas to the largest indoor venue to Radio City Music Hall…. Overall, it’s made me a much more versatile performer,” he said in the Houston Chronicle Interactive article. When he was on the road with McEntire, Akins brought along songwriters to help him create material for his next album. Some of the songs were tested on live audiences, but Akins noted that crowd reaction is but one way to gauge acountry hit. “…After that, I think it is just fate,” he told Lydia Dixon Harden in Music City News. “If everybody knew whatthe audience wanted to hear, boy, we’d all have number ones every single time.”
The tracks he eventually decided upon for his follow-up took him in a fresh musical direction, and Something New was chosen for a title. Released in June of 1996, Something Newgave Akins a number one hit with “Don’t Get Me Started,” and the album itself reached number 13. Still, he remained somewhat dissatisfied with the image of himself as just another young buck in a ten-gallon hat. He began looking for songs that reflected a more mature side, with which someone like himself—married for years, with two young children—might identify. The results appeared on What Livin’s All About, released on Decca in early 1998. Its first single, “More Than Anything,” was a love song that soon became a standard for the wedding-ballad repertoire. “I think it’s the best thing he’s done in some time,” one Los Angeles radio station executive, John Sebastian, told Billboards Deborah Evans Price.
Sebastian reflected that success for Akins was long overdue: “He’s a great artist,” the program director told Billboard, but stressed that the country music hit factory was heavily reliant upon solid, appealing songs—no matter who wrote or performed them. “You could almost be Garth Brooks and if you didn’t have the songs, it’s so competitive out there you would fall through the cracks,” Sebastian told Price. Other tracks on What Livin’s All About tapped into Akins’s return to the basics. “I’ll Be Right Here Loving You,” “Happy As We Want to Be,” “Love Rules,” and “The Rest of Forever” evinced a more country, less rock feel, though not all the dozen tracks were serious heart-tuggers.
To promote his third record, Akins undertook an unusual whirlwind tour of his home state. He went through all 159 Georgia counties in just under ten days in the “Rhett Akins Across Georgia” tour. It tied in with the singer’s fondness for his state, but also integrated his love of Civil War history (a fan site on the Internet divulged his favorite color as “Confederate Gray”) as well as passion for collecting antique books and maps on the subject. “I’ve always wanted to travel to every single county in Georgia, hang out, and talk to people and find out the history,” Akins told Billboard’s Price. He remains philosophical about the road that brought him full-circle: “I want to be a big star, but not because I want to ride in limousines and have a jet airplane. The only reason is because I want more people to hear what I’m trying to say.”
A Thousand Memories, Decca, 1995
Somebody New, Decca, 1996.
What Livin’s All About, Decca, 1998.
Billboard, December 13, 1997.
Music City News, July 1996.
Additional information for this profile was provided by Decca Records publicity materials, 1997.