As a kid growing up in Alabama, Mac Powell was surrounded by country music – starting with the band named after his home state.
“I learned a lot about music by listening to Alabama. I probably stole a few things from [frontman] Randy Owen about how to be a lead singer for a band,” Powell said with a smile.
For the past two decades, Powell, with his low-key charisma and piercing blue eyes, has fronted Third Day, one of Christian rock’s most thriving acts that has recorded a dozen studio albums (almost all have sold at least half a million copies) and earned shelves full of Dove and Grammy awards.
Those shiny objects of material validation aren’t on obvious display in Third Day’s Kennesaw studio – named The Quarry after the nearby actual quarry – but the beautifully cozy, two-floor hideaway stocked with a pool table, a horseshoe of top-notch recording equipment and bunks that emulate their tour bus lodging will do just fine as proof of their success.
Third Day’s 12th studio album, “Miracle,” arrives Tuesday, and Powell is eager to talk about recording it with Atlanta native Brendan O’Brien, who produced the release. The band is also performing the “rock” single, “Hit Me Like a Bomb,” for the first time Friday on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno.”
Though Powell had hoped to concentrate on his solo album this year, the opportunity to work with O’Brien, who mixed Third Day’s “Wire” album in 2004, cropped up sooner than the band planned. It was worth the hustle.
“He was the fifth member of the band,” Powell said. “He brought himself, his experience, his talents. From the very beginning he strapped on a guitar and said, ‘Let’s go!’ He sang 75 percent of the background vocals on the album and that was fine with me! He brought these tones and sounds and ideas that we’ve never worked with or had before and that’s a big element of the record and something we needed.”
But while “Bomb” is being prepped for a January single release to rock radio and “I Need a Miracle” continues to ascend toward the top five on Billboard’s Christian Songs chart, Powell also has another baby to boast about these days – his self-titled solo country album, released this summer.
On Saturday, Powell will wrap a tour at the Variety Playhouse – his “homecoming,” he’s calling it – and acknowledges that his initial shows without Third Day bandmates Tai Anderson, David Carr and Mark Lee were a bit, well, weird.
“Our very first show at a country festival in Nashville, here I am onstage trying to do what I normally do except that I’m singing songs I’ve never sang except in the studio and playing with guys I’ve never played with except for Jason Hoard, who has played with Third Day for several years,” Powell said. “But after a week or so, it clicked. It’s not as easy as being in Third Day – they can kind of feel where I’m going with a song. But at the same time, there’s this excitement with this new band.”
Powell said his Third Day comrades were never anything less than supportive of his decision to finally make the country album he’s had inside of himself for years. As a teen, he was frequently told that he had a voice for country, but, aside from some one-off stints with Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis, never thought he’d get the chance to exercise his twang muscle.
Indeed, Powell brings an appealing rasp to roll-down-the-windows-and-sing tunes such as “Sweet Georgia Girl” and “June Bug.”
“I love Third Day and I didn’t want to do anything detrimental to hurt the band. But then my desire to do this grew so much stronger than my fear of doing it,” he said.
Powell cites Darius Rucker, who detoured from Hootie and the Blowfish to forge a well-received career in country, as an influence to try a new path, and also credits Hoard, his creative partner and producer of the project, as a motivator.
“Knowing that I had a guy who was going to help me do this…that gave me the strength,” Powell said.
He also has much love for the Zac Brown Band.
“I love what they’re doing on so many levels. I really respect Zac as an artist, not just in music but in things he’s doing with social causes and developing so many great artists. I hope we can be best friends one day,” Powell said with a laugh.
While Powell is ready to shift gears from solo back to Third Day, which will go on the road in the spring (they’ll play the Fox Theatre April 13), he isn’t discounting his country foray as a one-off vanity project.
“I really want to try and continue to grow this brand and my music within the genre and get better at it,” he said.
His hope is that Third Day fans who hear the album will recognize that it isn’t too far off from what they’re used to hearing from him and, perhaps, he might even convert some listeners.
“So many people have assumptions about country music,” Powell said. “But I’ve had so many of my fans listen to the [country] record and say, ‘I think you’ve made me a country fan.’”
By Melissa Ruggieri, Atlanta Music Scene