By Vernell Hackett
NASHVILLE, Tennessee (Reuters) - Aaron Lewis stands as one of the more unusual crossovers into country music, but the singer of the metal band Staind believes it was a fit made in the cradle.
"It's been quite the pleasant eclectic mix of tattoos and black eyeliner, and Stetsons, cowboy boots and big shiny buckles," Lewis said in an interview after the release of his first full-length country studio album, "The Road," this week.
Lewis, 40, was raised on what he terms his grandfather's country music: Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Daniels and George Jones. He collaborated with Daniels and Jones on his country EP, "Town Line," released last year.
This made the transition from the angst-ridden world of metal to the laid-back country scene an easy step for him, but perhaps not so much for his head-banging fans.
"A few fans are really having a hard time with it," Lewis said. "I can't make everyone happy. Music is about making me happy first. For those who wish I would stick with Staind, they'll get what they want, too."
Lewis, who sold seven studio albums over a 17-year career with Staind, says he has two musical careers because he is "creatively bipolar" and suffers from attention deficit disorder.
"I need to switch it up a little bit," he said. "It's kind of nice to write a song about taking my daughters to the beach instead (of) about something that's tearing me apart from the inside."
For Lewis, each song on "The Road" is the opportunity to explore his creativity in music, while winding down a road filled with new country listeners and taking Staind fans along for the ride.
"The Road" includes "Forever," a thoughtful song of life on the road, and "Endless Summer," a simple track about digging up clams and casting for striped bass with his daughters.
"If we catch a keeper we throw it on the grill," he says. "The beauty of the adventure that I'm on now is I can write songs about stuff like that. I could never bring a song like that to the table for Staind."
He describes writing "Endless Summer" as a "refreshing and a nice change" from his metal past.
"I remember having a big smile on my face the whole time I was writing it," he said. "In the past, what's usually coming up for lyrics is not smiley material. The song wrote itself in 10 minutes."
In contrast, "Party in Hell," which has fans up and dancing, was the last song Lewis wrote for the album and was inspired by a stint in Las Vegas.
"Las Vegas really is, in a metaphorical sense, a party in hell; you can get into anything you want to," he said. "It was like well, 'OK, I'm going to hell, who else is going to be there? We might as well have a party with it.'"
His previous country EP, "Town Line," featured the gold-selling single "Country Boy," a collaboration with Daniels and Jones that hit the top of the "Billboard" album charts and topped off at No. 7 on the Top 200.
"That's crazy, right?" Lewis asks, shaking his head. "It was pretty amazing for me, pretty surreal. I was actually in the studio with Charlie, which was a lot of fun. We have become good friends."
The writing process for country or rock is the same, according to Lewis.
"The music is always first, then the melody, and the lyrics third," he said. "I need the music to know what the landscape is that I'm singing over, and I need the melody to fit the words in, and then the words come last."
But the lyrics do not come while he is writing on a piece of paper. "They come with me standing in front of a microphone with the song playing in the background and singing," he said. "It's total improv, right off the cuff."
As with recording, Lewis does not approach a rock performance differently from a country performance.
"I go out on stage and perform those songs I recorded to the best of my ability to sound just like the recording," he said. "I have always tried to approach every show like it's the only show that I have. That's kind of how I've gone about this crazy career I've had now coming up on 15 years."
(Reporting by Vernell Hackett; Editing by Christine Kearney and Lisa Von Ahn)