December 14, 2011 12:00 PM

When Rodney Atkins first cradled his son Elijah moments after his birth in 2001, the significance of the singer’s own adoption hit him as it never had before. “It opened my eyes, and I understood what my birth mother had done for me,” he says. “I understood what my parents had done, what divine intervention had done, that it was a miracle I was sitting there at that moment.” It took another 10 years, however, before another miracle was fully realized: welcoming his birth mother-and a half brother-into his family.

Adopted as an infant from the Holston Home for Children in Greeneville, Tenn., and raised in a loving East Tennessee home, Atkins knew nothing of the 19-year-old who gave him up when he was hours old, but he had a fierce pride in his adoptive family. So much so that when record execs suggested the aspiring singer change his surname (the country genre was already home to Trace Adkins and Rhett Akins), he refused. “It wasn’t an option,” he says. “I felt I was lucky to have that name.”

In fact, it wasn’t until he found fame after the breakthrough success of his 2006 album If You’re Going Through Hell that Atkins, 42, decided to search for his past. “People started showing up at shows saying, ‘Hey man, I’m your brother,'” he says. “They’d bring baggies of hair and want to run tests to see if we were related. I wasn’t doing it to fill some void. I needed to figure out who my birth mother was to put a stop to the nuttiness.”

In 2008 he contacted a lawyer and started the legal process of finding her, soon learning that not only was she eager to meet him, but so was her son, Rodney’s younger half brother Tony, 35. And neither of them knew Atkins was a country star. The brothers talked first: “We joked, ‘Do we wrestle? Do we drink beer and watch a game?'” says Atkins. “How do you catch up?”

Meeting his birth mother was even more profound. “I walked in the room and there she was … and I saw Elijah’s hair. His eyes. All the connections,” Atkins says. “She held me and was trembling, saying, ‘Son, I’m so sorry.’ And I kept saying, ‘Thank you for what you did. There’s no need to be sorry. I have wonderful parents. You have no idea of the blessings you opened up for me.’ ”

Since then they’ve kept in touch with e-mails and calls, and Atkins’s mother even put together a box of photos of Rodney for his birth mother-“pretty much of my life up until the day my birth mom met me,” he says. “That’s my mom. She lives the Golden Rule.”

In August Atkins’s parents escorted his birth mother and her husband to one of his concerts in Bristol, Tenn. “I went onstage to play, and there they were, all sitting together,” Atkins says. “And right there was the reason I’m alive.”

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