Tootsies Orchid Lounge, with its grape Bubble Yum facade and memorabilia-crammed interior, is one of Nashville’s best spots to commune with the golden-age spirits of Patsy Cline, Waylon Jennings, and Roy Acuff, and occasionally come across stars of a more recent vintage. But it’s not exactly the first place you would expect to see Kid Rock. Or at least, not the Kid Rock of yesteryear: the onetime Detroit house-party DJ who signed with Jive at 17 (he was later dropped) and became known in the late ’90s as the industry’s premier FCC-baiting rap-rock Beelzebub.
The Kid Rock of today is not entirely reformed — he remains a larger-than-life character with a string of famous exes (Pamela Anderson, Jaime Pressley) and a penchant for bad behavior (a stripper pole in the recording studio, an arrest for misdemeanor battery at an Atlanta Waffle House). Still, he looks perfectly at home amid Tootsies’ boot-clad patrons, with their tobacco spit cups and midday whiskey shots. He introduces himself amiably as Bob Ritchie — his given name — and over a cigar and a can of Coors Light (both the first of many), he discusses the phenomenal success of his ninth album, Rock N Roll Jesus, and the unusual trajectory of a career that seems to have made him, at 37, the sole member of a genre of his own.
”The music industry wants to categorize you, and every category wants to own you,” he says, folding his long frame into a coveted backroom booth, his eyes hidden behind mirrored aviators and his shaggy blond hair topped by a trademark fedora. ”I’ve been very lucky, because I can jump on the Country Music Awards, the American Music Awards, the MTV Awards, the BET Awards, whatever it is.” While he spent the earlier years of his fame touring with the likes of Ice Cube and Metallica, Rock’s sound has become increasingly hard to pigeonhole as time goes on — especially since his duet with Sheryl Crow, the 2003 crossover smash ”Picture.” ”I love all types of music,” he says with a shrug. ”So whatever type of music I’m doing, I study it, I love it, I’m into it. I hang with the people who play it best and learn from them.”
His latest album does seem like the fairly organic evolution of a musical omnivore — the work of a guy who reveres classic beer-on-the-dashboard rockers like Bob Seger as much as he does the hip-hop iconoclasm of Run-DMC or Public Enemy (even if he leans more toward the former than the latter these days). ”I think hip-hop is the blues music of our age,” he says. ”There’s been no other sound to come along since blues that touched every corner of pop culture like that. But it got so popular that it ran its course. It will always be prevalent, but it’s kind of pushed a lot of people out, i.e., white kids, who don’t really feel a part of it. They like the music, but everyone wants to be accepted and feel like a part of something.” Rock is nothing if not a musical populist. Jesus‘ subjects — girls, booze, good times, more girls — are both universal and attainable, a world away from the hermetically sealed, almost surreal luxury of modern celebritydom. It’s that accessibility, no doubt, that helped make the album’s breakout, ”All Summer Long,” a hit on Billboard‘s country, pop, and mainstream rock charts. The song, built on a post-millennial mashup of Warren Zevon’s ”Werewolves of London” and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ”Sweet Home Alabama,” became an instant seasonal anthem. It also became his first single to go No. 1 in countries like Germany and Ireland — previously virgin Kid territory.
Just don’t look for it on iTunes. Like the Beatles, AC/DC, and Garth Brooks, Rock eschews today’s most popular digital-music portal, though he happily admits to owning major stock in Apple itself. ”I just don’t like being told what to do,” he explains. ”I don’t have a beef with Apple, or iTunes, or any of them. I do have a beef with that it seems kind of socialist of them to charge the same price for every song. What if every car cost $4,000, you know what I mean? A song from my neighbor’s garage band is not the same value as Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Born to Run.’ I just want to decide how my product gets sold with the people who sell it.”’ But iTunes doesn’t need Rock’s permission to sell various ”karaoke” or ”tribute” versions of his music — and in fact, one such cover, by the anonymously named Hit Masters, even outpaced his original on the Hot 100, thanks to its availability online. (Asked what kind of money he makes from that particular iTunes track, Rock smiles good-naturedly: ”Probably what I’ll spend at this bar tonight.”)
When he’s not busy taking on the Man or touring to support Jesus, Rock prefers to stay close to home, hanging out at the estate outside his native Detroit where he lives with his 15-year-old son, Junior, of whom he has sole custody. Though Rock is proud to have provided a better life for them both — ”when he was little, we didn’t have anything. He slept in a crib in the closet” — he’s also made sure that Junior, who buses tables at a local bar, appreciates where he came from. ”He’ll get some money one day, there’s no doubt about it,” he says. ”But I think it’s important that he knows how hard people work to pay their bills, and the value of a dollar.” Perks aside, however, sometimes even international rock stardom can’t make a guy cool to his teenage son. ”A while ago,” Rock remembers with a chortle, ”I took him and his buddy to the movies. I sit down, I look back, and those little f—ers are sitting about six rows behind me. I go back and I grab them both, and I go, ‘Let me tell you something. Not only am I the coolest person in this theater, some say maybe in all of America. Don’t you ever come into a theater and sit behind me!”’
So who is Kid Rock? The loving single dad who spends his Christmases visiting U.S. troops in Iraq and days off go-karting with his son, or the platinum bad boy reveling in Playmates and boozy excess? ”You can make me out to be whatever you like,” he concedes, grinning. ”I’ll hang out here at the bar, sit and drink and take pictures and have fun with people. And when I step on the stage, I’m gonna grab my d— and turn my hat to the side, and there’s nobody bigger than me. That’s kinda the attitude I take when I’m on stage, but it’s a lot different when I’m off it.”