NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Rodney Atkins is still surprised when people recognize him in the grocery store nowadays. But give it time.
With six nominations for Sunday's Academy of Country Music Awards, including biggies like male vocalist, album of the year and song of the year, his shopping trips are about to get a lot dicier. He's also scheduled to perform at the show, which airs live from Las Vegas at 8 p.m. Eastern on CBS.
A former repo man and delivery-truck driver, Atkins says he's humbled to be nominated alongside superstars like George Strait and Kenny Chesney.
"I couldn't believe it when my name was read all those times," said Atkins, who trails only Chesney for most nominations. "I had to ask my wife what I was nominated for. It blew me away."
Not that he hasn't earned it. His sophomore album, "If You're Going Through Hell," produced four No. 1 hits: "Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)," "These Are My People," "Watching You," and "If You're Going Through Hell (Before The Devil Even Knows)."
That doesn't happen often.
"Sometimes it's just a matter of coming into your own as a writer, and I think as much as anything, that's what happened with Rodney Atkins. He paints amazing images that so many people can relate to," said Lon Helton, editor and publisher of industry trade publication "Country Aircheck."
Atkins, 39, signed with Curb Records in 1997, but a series of stops and starts delayed his debut until 2003. That first album, "Honesty," didn't live up to expectations or its title, either.
"I had leather pants and this and that. That was the image of the guy on the 'Honesty' album," recalls Atkins.
So he changed management teams, lost the leather pants and the cowboy hat and recorded songs that fit him better. Today, he performs in the same duds he'd wear to change the oil in his car: old jeans, flannel shirt and beat-up cap.
"Things got real simplified," says Atkins, who affectionately describes his audience as "intelligent rednecks" and sings about them — warts and all — in "These Are My People," as honest a celebration of one's roots as you'll find.
Atkins is fortunate to have roots at all. At birth, he was placed with a children's home in Greeneville, Tenn., and during the first year of his life was taken in by three different families. That third one raised him as their own in Cumberland Gap, Tenn., a mountain hamlet where Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia meet.
On Sunday, the singer will be antsy about song of the year, where his "Watching You" is up against Chesney's "Don't Blink," Big & Rich's "Lost in This Moment," Emerson Drive's "Moments" and Sugarland's "Stay."
The song was inspired by his 6-year-old son, Elijah, and is about a little boy who learns things from watching his dad — but not always what his dad wants him to learn. Atkins wrote it after Elijah got in trouble for serenading his preschool class with one of his father's other tunes, "If You're Going Through Hell."
Of course, Atkins had a talk with his boy, but it gave him an idea and that night he began writing "Watching You."
"To have a song I wrote about my little boy being nominated for song and video of the year is incredible," he said.
Atkins' outcome won't be the only drama at the ACM awards. With 11 nominations, Chesney leads by a bunch and is going for his fourth straight entertainer-of-the-year award, the night's top trophy. If Chesney wins, he'd tie Garth Brooks for that distinction, though Alabama still holds the record with five in a row.
In a twist, fans will choose this year's entertainer winner, the first time that's happened. All other winners are selected by members of the ACM.
Chesney has double nominations for artist and producer for "Shift Work" with George Strait, "Don't Blink" for single of the year and "Just Who I Am: Poets & Pirates" for album of the year.
Those production credits have to be big for him. Chesney has been doing more offstage stuff lately, co-producing Willie Nelson's album "Moment of Forever" and co-writing Rascal Flatts' No. 1 hit "Take Me There."
"Something happens to artists when they get to that level," said Wade Jessen, director of country charts for Billboard magazine. "They want to be more involved, want to do more."
Brad Paisley, Big & Rich and Sugarland all have four nominations, while Strait has three.
Taylor Swift and Miranda Lambert are the most nominated women with three apiece.
Swift, who's only 18, might be country's hottest act at the moment, coming off big wins at last month's Country Music Television awards and appearing on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine's "Best of Rock" issue. Her nominations include top female vocalist — with Lambert, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes and Carrie Underwood — and album of the year.
She's a newcomer, but ACM voters have a history of rewarding new artists who have breakout years. Underwood took home top female vocalist, album and video of the year honors last year. Rascal Flatts won top vocal group back in 2003, and every year since.
"Taylor is a real demonstration of what's possible if you have the right artist at the right moment," Jessen said. "This town isn't really breaking new acts on a regular basis. They are fewer and farther in between than they once were. I think that translates into support come awards time. It behooves us to embrace these artists and really build them up."
Lambert, 24, is one of country's enigmas. Critics like her, fans like her, voters like her and she's electric on stage. But radio hasn't fully embraced her. Her highest charting single on Billboard is "Famous in a Small Town," and it peaked at No. 14.
"If you hook a song that captures the public's imagination, it's going to put you on the national stage. Then it becomes a matter of 'Do you have everything else it takes to be a star?'" Helton observed. "In Miranda's case, she has everything else to be a star, it's just finding the right hit. If she hooks that right one that resonates with a large audience, look out."