April 9, 2009
The name of the new Rodney Atkins album is It’s America, but it could just as easily have been called Rodney Atkins and the Power of Positive Thinking.
Pessimists, be wary of this record. You run the risk of abandoning your perennial half-empty glass and purchasing a lifetime subscription to Keep on the Sunny Side Quarterly. For an optimist like me, listening to Atkins is like discovering a new friend, one who shares your enthusiasm for looking on the bright side but has the added bonus of punctuating his look on the bright side sentences with fiddles and steel guitar.
I can’t remember the last time I smiled so many times while listening to a new country record. In the opener, “Tell a Country Boy”, I grinned when he described a country boy as someone who will “always take his time, if you give him a choice.” As “Chasing Girls” progressed from chasing the girls you’re suiting to chasing the girls you’ve fathered, I laughed out loud as he pleaded with his three year-old daughter, “Don’t let that dog lick you in the mouth!”
And even though I’ve been a frustrated out-of-towner stuck behind a tractor on a one-lane road in Alabama, I couldn’t help but smirk at his celebration of his “Friends with Tractors” who “are good at slowing speeders down when they pass through from out of town.”
The vignettes about small-town life are fresh and entertaining, and are so light-hearted at first that it’s easy to be taken off guard when Atkins begins to dig a little deeper toward the end of the album. The album closes with three fantastic philosophical songs, beginning with “Rocking of the Cradle”, where he sings that “I came in this world with nothing, and that’s how I’ll leave someday. And all that I’ll take with me is the love I gave away.”
The song is more effective because it’s sung in the first person. Rather than telling the listener how to live their life, he’s sharing how the way he lives his works for him. That approach is even more effective on the next song, “When It’s My Time,” where he’s frustrated by the slow-moving cars making him late.
As he realizes the endless stream of vehicles are part of a funeral procession, he begins to wonder if he’d have such a big turnout for his own passing. It makes him think about how important it is to treat other people well and live a good life, because the value of our time on earth is ultimately measured by the good works and relationships that we leave behind.
Best of all is the album closer, “The River Just Knows.” He wants to spend the day fishing alone because “the river don’t talk, the river don’t care where you’ve been or why you’re standing there.” He’s frustrated to see another man in his favorite fishing spot, until he realizes that it’s a soldier who has returned from overseas with far greater troubles on his mind. A selfish motive may have brought him to the river to fish that day, but Atkins leaves with a greater sense of empathy for another man’s experiences.
I always tell my students that there are two ways to live your life. You can look to the right, and notice all of those who have more than you, and feel unlucky and envious. Or you can look to your left, notice all of those who have less than you, and feel lucky and appreciative. It’s obvious which direction that Atkins looks toward, and it’s a joyful experience looking at the world from his perspective.