Produced by Country legend Buddy Cannon (whose production resume boasts masterpieces with artists ranging from Kenny Chesney and George Strait to Merle Haggard and George Jones), and recorded over 16 intense hours at Nashville’s Blackbird Studios, SINNER captures what was going on in Lewis’ head at this point in his life; laid back with a soundtrack that harkens back to the Country genre’s most honest and musically adventurous artists.
“I loved working with Buddy,” says Lewis. “He’s an amazing, highly accomplished producer that really doesn’t have very many bad ideas. And he also steps back and allows you to be creative and do whatever it is you’re doing, and doesn’t try to change the vision that you have. I was able to write and record a record that I was responsible for how it came out.”
Written on tour and during infrequent down times over the past two years, and road-tested in front of fans that basically served as judge and jury for inclusion on the record, the songs on SINNER together alternate between swagger and vulnerability, biting humor and fierce independence. Lewis and his creative compadre Ben Kitterman (Lewis’ former bus driver who earned a permanent place by his side on the road and in the studio once his talent was discovered), are joined by such A-Listers as Brent Mason (guitar), Paul Franklin (steel guitar), Jim “Moose” Brown (keyboards), Bobby Terry (guitar), Pat Buchanan (guitar) and Tony Creaseman (drums). Also taking part are such country stalwarts as Mickey Raphael, Willie Nelson (who adds a committed gravitas to the title cut), Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminski and Vince Gill. Remarkably, “I think I got Vince Gill to sing the word ‘shit’ for the first time in his career,” Lewis says with a laugh.
Most of the songs were cut live in the studio, using scratch vocals. “I had a pretty good idea what I wanted the album to sound like,” says Lewis, “and then it was a matter of just going in and either playing songs for the guys in the studio live on an acoustic guitar and let them go from there; or playing them YouTube clips of the song live off of somebody’s phone. Most of the time, they didn’t even need to listen to the whole song, they got the gist of it, charted it out, and then went in there and nailed it on one or two takes. Everything is live, everybody was just playing the song and going right to tape, and then 16 hours later the recording process was complete.”
The result is an album that is “as raw and as real and as un-messed with as it could possibly be,” according to Lewis, with the energy of a “band” record and an introspective tone that completely reflects the state of mind of Aaron Lewis. Creative flourishes abound, with innovative arrangements melding with traditional honky-tonk structures and instrumentations, along with muscular ballads and powerful themes of love, loyalty, alienation and regret, tempered by a dose of humor and knowing introspection.
While Lewis’ lyrics and vocals astound throughout, perhaps the most impactful song on an immensely interesting and entertaining album is its hidden track, a version of the Bruce Robison gem “Travelin’ Soldier” featuring vocals from Lewis then-13 year-old daughter, Zoe. In her recorded vocal debut, Zoe nails it, providing an innocence and purity of tone that serve the song’s lyrics to the highest level. It’s an auspicious debut, and one Lewis admits could change his daughter’s life.
“I am beyond proud,” says Lewis. “She has this innocence and purity to her voice because it’s a completely raw, untrained voice. All I was doing in the room, silently, with hand gestures and body motions, was just trying to get her to sing loud and project, just trying to get her to go after it.”
The power of Zoe’s debut begs the question of how Lewis would feel if his daughter were to embark on a career in a business he has been openly critical of. “I would be very, very cautious, and supportively against it, if that makes any sense,” he says. “It is a vicious, vicious industry, and I would have to be right there at her side, holding her hand the entire time in order to be comfortable with it. I’ve heard it all already, every possible thing you could throw at my daughter to influence her in some way, and it ain’t gonna happen.”