Tippin's brand of blue collar pride and unwavering patriotism was instilled during his upbringing on a South Carolina farm. When he wasn't on stage performing at local bars, he was earning his own ''Working Man's Ph.D.'' as a trucker, welder, mechanic, and airplane pilot. His résumé supplied the building blocks for his working class anthems, but he also showed a tender side with the hit ballads "My Blue Angel" and "That's As Close As I'll Get To Loving You."
True to his roots, Tippin was rambling through the North Georgia Mountains with his uncle en route to look at a plane when Songfacts caught up with him. On a brief respite from touring, he's still happy talk about his career - from his early days in Nashville to his 2015 anniversary album Aaron Tippin - 25 Years.
Aaron Tippin: Well, the truth is I came to Nashville as a singer, and nothing happened. I was on a show called You Can Be A Star. I won one round and lost the next. But I had a videotape, so I took it around to all the record labels. Nobody even had the courtesy to call me back. [Laughing]
I started writing songs - I was already a songwriter, but I fell so in love with songwriting. It took me. So I consider myself a songwriter that became a singer.
Songfacts: You've said in many of your interviews that Hank Williams, Sr., was a major influence on you. What lessons did you take from him in songwriting?
Tippin: Don't be complicated, don't write riddles. He made it clear and he made it cool. He just always found the right words to say something, and it affected me. It really affected me. That shows how simply great he was.
Songfacts: But it's not so simple when you actually try to do it, is it?
Tippin: Oh, buddy, not for me. Everything comes hard.
Songfacts: And what was your first big cut for another artist?
Tippin: Oh, shoot. First cut for another artist was David Ball, "I Was Born With a Broken Heart."
Songfacts: You didn't write that specifically with him in mind, that was something you had to kind of shop around?
Tippin: We just pitched it. We brought the song, pitched it, and he bit.
Songfacts: We recently talked to Mark Collie and he was telling us about "Something With A Ring To It." He said he really wanted George Strait to record that one, and then it ended up going to Garth Brooks.
Tippin: Yep. That'd been great, too. But I wasn't disappointed at all that Garth got it. [Laughs] It paid off a couple of payments I had.
Songfacts: Oh, I'm sure. That was a huge album for him. That was on The Chase that ended up being a big crossover album.
Tippin: Yeah. We were lucky, me and Mark. You know, Mark had that as his first single. Then we got that great cut on it. Man, that was just so awesome. That was a big day for both of us.
Songfacts: Do you remember the first time you heard yourself on the radio?
Tippin: I sure do. It's way before I went to Nashville, in my honky tonk years. We'd go down to the studio and we'd cut a little 45 and we'd take it around to all the local radio stations, try to get them to play it. Once in awhile they did, and I can remember a guy met us at the door, wouldn't even let us come in. We said, "Well, we were out trying to see if we could get a record played." He says, "Okay, I'll check it out." He slammed the door in our face, we left.
We're riding away and we still had that radio station tuned in. Next thing you know, it said, "Here's one from a guy down South Carolina, Aaron Tippin." Bam! I went, "Wow! He played it!"
Songfacts: Your first Top 10 hit was "You've Got To Stand For Something." What do you remember about writing that one?
Tippin: Buddy Brock and I wrote that song. All we did was recall how our dads raised us, what kind of guys they were, and that's basically how we put that tune together.
Songfacts: Because it became associated with the Gulf War, a lot of people look at it as being a patriotic song. But when you listen to it, it's about sticking to your morals and convictions in everyday life.
Tippin: Right, and my dad was my hero in life. Heck, man, if you listen to almost all Aaron Tippin songs, blue collar stuff, you know, that's my dad coming out of me, always.
Songfacts: Many also assume that "Where the Stars and the Stripes and the Eagle Fly" was written in response to 9/11, but that was actually scrapped from an earlier album, right?
Tippin: That's exactly right. I just always try to put something patriotic on my albums. But when we put together the album, for some reason the record label just didn't think that was something they wanted to do. They didn't want to take up that slot with something patriotic. I never shoved any of my songs down the throat of labels or said, "No, we're going to cut this." I just didn't do that. We took outside songs, we listened, we cut what we thought was the best stuff. So one thing led to another and we just shelved it and I didn't think much of it, really.
Obviously, it had a better place to live, anyhow.
Songfacts: Do you remember if there were any changes made by the time you recorded it?
Tippin: Not that I recall. Of course I'm bad right at the last minute in the studio doing final vocals and wanting to change the lyrics on songs, going "No, that's just not it." Rewrite it. I do that on occasions.
Songfacts: Now, I have to be careful asking you about "Kiss This," because I know it's based on an argument with your wife, but it's also a cheating song.
Songfacts: Whose idea was it to turn it into a song about cheating?
Tippin: Oh, that was her. After she'd got through telling me to kiss this, she said, "That sounds like a song title," and she went and wrote it down. We were writing that song and honestly, we just thought it was a little hokey, funny little title. We were virtually writing it to get it out of the way. I mean, that's what we were doing, trying to get it out of the way.
So we just wrote the thing. But before we got into it, first a chorus and going, "Oh, man, this could be good." So we really wrote a cool little song around it, and I'm very proud of it.
Songfacts: I like that you're singing from the perspective of the bartender watching the story unfold. I don't know if it would have worked as well if you were a guy who had been cheated on and you were saying that to a woman. I wonder if that would have been a hit that way.
Tippin: Yeah, I agree with you. I don't think it could have been. I think a third-party view of the situation, you know, I think that's right. I think it's exactly right.
Songfacts: Do you remember doing the music video for that one? That looked like it was pretty fun.
Tippin: It was. It was a great time. A ton of fun.
Songfacts: And you got the girl at the end. You got to take off in the car with the bride.
Tippin: Oh, yeah, with the hot little girl from New Jersey. [Laughing]
Songfacts: Going back to an earlier hit, was there an actual car that inspired "There Ain't Nothin' Wrong With the Radio"?
Tippin: It's my old car Daisy, 1975 Toyota Corolla. When she finally laid down, she had 271,000 miles on her. So Buddy and I have just finished up a song called "I Wonder How Far it is Over You." He said, "What are we going to write next?" I said, "I got the greatest idea in the world. It's about this guy and he's got this new girlfriend and she just keeps messin' with his radio, twistin' on the knobs, pushin' all the buttons back and forth. He finally says, 'Hey, knock it off, there ain't nothing wrong with my radio.'" And Buddy said, "No, we're not writing it about some guy you made up in your head." He said, "We're going to write that about your old beat-up car, Daisy, because the only thing on it that works is the radio."
So 45 minutes walking around taking a couple of notes and it turned into a very big hit. First #1 record for Aaron Tippin.
Songfacts: That fits right in with the blue collar-type songs that you're known for. So what attracted you to do a ballad like "That's As Close As I'll Get to Loving You"?
And thank goodness I had a great producer like Steve Gibson. Steve said, "You know, Aaron, You've always sung in a pretty high key. Let's drop this down a few notches and see what your voice sounds like down in the bottom." So we did, and it was a whole new Aaron Tippin. It really worked great.
Songfacts: You showed a little bit of that tender side a couple of years before with "My Blue Angel," too. That was another Top 10 hit.
Tippin: "My Blue Angel" was particularly important to me, because there had not been a country-blues yodeling song at the top of the charts in 40 years till that song came along. There were a lot of folks at the record label who said, "That song's not a hit, it's just too country."
And it was mighty country. Of course, if it hadn't been for Randy Travis and even before him, John Anderson, there wouldn't be an Aaron Tippin. That kind of country had to come from somewhere and knock down the big trees. That would be John and Randy. They did the hard work.
Songfacts: When I was listening to the 25 Years album, I was expecting it to be a greatest hits collection, but you have some new songs on there. I was not expecting to hear Frank Sinatra ("The Way You Look Tonight"). That one really threw me for a loop.
Tippin: [Laughing] Well, that's about the nicest way you can put it, isn't it?
Songfacts: No, I was happy. I'm a big Sinatra fan, so it was a nice surprise to hear that on there.
Tippin: Well, I am, too. We call it Hank Sinatra when I do it.
Songfacts: I love that. That could be your alter ego. Do you perform those live?
Tippin: Sometimes. Not all the time. It's very important and close to me, close to the fans, to do the hits. That takes the majority of the show, because I really want to do what they came to hear. They want to sing along with me, that's what they want to do. The other stuff's cool and fun, but I just try not to get too caught up in how cool I am.
Songfacts: One of the newer ones from the album was "God's Not Through With Me Yet." Did you really have, like the song says, an angel working overtime back in '93? How autobiographical was it?
Tippin: Me, my wife, and a friend of ours, John Ritter, wrote that song. Yeah, I wrecked some cars in my time. They're all scenarios, but you are talking to a guy that's been hit by lightning twice. If you don't think that I've still got a reason to be here, I've had two engine failures in airplanes, and I've managed to get them on the ground safely without getting killed. So I think I still got a reason to be here, and I think everybody can relate to that song. That's what's cool about it.
Songfacts: Your family is so involved in what you do. Do you think that's what has helped you stay grounded all these years?
Tippin: Well, my wife Thea, most folks don't know this, she's a vocal major from Belmont University. She's a music graduate from Gonzaga Music, and she is super talented. It just didn't happen for her, but she had a great love for music and the music business. We partnered up and became working partners and fell in love and got married and all that.
But it works together, because she's such a hard worker. She joined the Aaron Tippin career six weeks after it was born. I signed with RCA and six weeks later I was working for Reba McEntire's husband and one of their agents, they were my new managers. Thea worked for that agent. She's been in the Aaron Tippin career almost as long as me.
We have a duet together, too, and I just thought that's very appropriate for somebody who's as great a singer as she is. She does praise and worship music, and she's got albums, pop albums and country, and she's got a gospel album. We cut records on her, too.
Songfacts: You also have your sons on the 25 Years album, too.
Tippin: There's actually a song called "The House of the Lord," which is a gospel tune I wrote 30 years ago, never had recorded it, and it was a great place to put all the Tippins on. So that's Ted singing bass, Tom singing tenor with Ma, Ma's singing harmony, and me singing lead. So that's kind of our family song.
The very last song, as you were mentioning, that's me and my youngest son, Tom. Boy, he's a good little vocalist. He has great aspirations of being in the music business, too, so we'll see how it all shakes out. He works on it every day. If he ain't got a guitar in his hand and singing, he's out in the gym working out.
Songfacts: You're talking about the Al Green song, "Let's Stay Together"?
Tippin: Yes. That's different for Aaron Tippin, too. But that was my date music when I was a kid, when I was 16, 17, Al Green was it, man. That made the chicks more friendly.
Songfacts: You also included plenty of your hits on the album, like "Working Man's Ph.D." Do you remember writing that song?
Songfacts: I think that makes you relatable to a lot of country fans. Some artists, once they become famous, they start living a completely different lifestyle that their fans can't connect with anymore.
Tippin: Well, here I am, we got tools in the back. My uncle is a certified aircraft mechanic and he's also an aircraft inspector; I'm also a certified aircraft mechanic, along with my ratings as a pilot. So when I'm not out there working, I'm at home working. We're twisting wrenches on airplanes, we're out flying them. It's what I love, what I do, and it helps keep me grounded.
I got dirt and grease under my fingernails and holes poked in me from safety wire right now. It helps me stay focused.
Songfacts: If Aaron Tippin was first starting out in Nashville today, do you think he would make it?
Tippin: No. I don't think there would be a chance, and it's changed. I'm not saying that in a mean way, and I'm not saying that to hammer the guys that are having success now. It's just changed quite a bit. No, and if Hank Williams, Sr., would have pulled up in town, I don't think he could become a star, either.
I hear a lot of my cohorts whining and crying about the new stuff, but that's just sour grapes to everybody listening to it. Man, just sit back there and smile. They got it in good faith, just shut up.
It's just different. I had my day in the sunshine, Hank had his day in the sunshine, and now these guys got their day. I say stand back, let 'em shine.
November 28, 2016.
For more on Aaron Tippin, visit his official website.
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