A Nashville icon for more than two decades, Trace Adkins has made his mark on the country-music industry. 11 million albums sold. Time-honored hit singles. Momentous, fiery and always memorable live performances. Grammy nominations. CMT and ACM awards. Hell, even a slew of movie and TV roles have come the Grand Ole Opry member’s way. But ask Adkins what’s left to prove in his career and the small-town Louisiana native says it’s simple: the itch remains. To create. To collaborate. To continually feel the excitement that comes after whipping up a new song out of thin air and laying it down to tape. It’s what, after all these years, he says he still craves. “It’s an adrenaline rush and I love it,” says Adkins, who spent much of last year in a Nashville studio writing and recording Something’s Going On, his 12th studio album — released March 31 — and his first release on his new label, BBR Music Group/Wheelhouse Records. “There’s nothing else like that,” the Louisiana naive offers. “That is still my favorite thing to do in this business. Go into the studio with just some lyrics and a melody and then let the finest musicians in the world help take it and turn it into something magical. It liberates me. I just dig it!”
Working with some of Nashville’s most respected songwriters including Shane McNally, Tyler Farr and Craig Campbell, Something’s Going On is a true snapshot of a country icon at a special moment in his life: reflecting on how he’s gearing back his wild rock-star ways (“Watered Down”), finding his sweet spot in a changing world (“Jesus and Jones”), and never forgetting his down-home roots (“Country Boy Problems”). Produced by Mickey Jack Cones, the LP, like the bulk of his previous releases, Adkins says, is a window into his life. “Over the years people have asked me ‘How could we get to know you?’ Well, if you really wanted to know who Trace Adkins is go back and listen to the album cuts on the records I’ve done over my career. Those are the songs that reflect where I was in my head at the time I made that record.”
Where in the past some of the album’s deep cuts painted the most accurate picture of Adkins’ mindset at the time (“Maybe they weren’t the commercial material that was going to end up on the radio, but they best expressed where I was at emotionally and mentally when I made that record”), this time lead single “Watered Down — a slow-burning, emotive rumination on growing older, wiser but never losing your killer instinct and edge -- is the track Adkins wholeheartedly believes most accurately expresses his outlook on life and career at this stage in the game. “That’s one of those songs where I smacked myself on the forehead and went “Wow, I should have written that!”” he recalls of first hearing the song, which hit country radio on March 13. “It is all autobiographical. It really is. I’ve never done a record and finished it and said, “OK, this is my favorite cut off this album.” But this time there’s no bones about it. That’s my favorite cut. It just is. It speaks to my soul.”
So passionate was Adkins about both “Watered Down” and the album’s other highly personal tracks, notably the sweet and yearning piano-anchored “If Only You Were Lonely,” he recalls “a couple of goosebumps moments in the studio” when recording them. When laying down the vocal to the stunning backporch burner of a ballad “Wippoorwheels and Freight Trains,” Adkins had to stop and compose himself.
“I just had to stop and say ‘You gotta give me a minute. I’ve got to regain my composure. This song is killing me.’ It doesn’t happen that often,” notes the always reflective singer-songwriter behind the revealing 2007 autobiography, A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions from a Freethinking Roughneck, “but when it does you’ve gotta savor that for a second.”
It’s an interesting change of perspective for Adkins however when he hits the road for a slew of his now legendary live gigs. Where the studio offers him unique insight into his current state of mind, onstage, when revisiting his classic songs like “You’re Gonna Miss This” or “Every Light in the House” nearly every evening, he says he’s taken back, if only for a brief while, to earlier moments in his life.
“It’s hard to describe. I gotta be honest,” he says of being overcome with emotion and reflection when trotting out some of his time-tested cuts for adoring audiences. “I’ve gotten to the point now where I’ll be onstage singing ‘Every Light In The House Is On’ and I look down at the crowd and realize that person right there wasn’t even alive when I recorded that song.” He laughs. “To watch their face go, Oh, that’s a cool hook, it’s like “Oh my god, that’s the first time that person every heard that song!”
Adkins says he’s profoundly touched that he serves as an inspiration to a younger generation of country artists, much in the way he revered icons like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard when first moving to Nashville. “I dig it. I want to be in that position,” he says of taking the reigns as an elder statesman of the genre. “I want to be looked at that way. I want those guys to think and know they can walk up to me and ask me anything and know that I’m here for them and I’ll help them however I can. I relish that position.
Lest you think however that Adkins has lost any of his trademark passion and killer instinct for his craft, the 55-year-old is as fired up as ever to be back on the road this summer, touring behind Something’s Going On and completing his 12th USO tour. “I get a kick out of it. I still enjoy the camaraderie, the band of brothers, your crew and your band. I’m an old jock. I like team sports,” he says of a continued passion for touring. “I like it when the new guy is closing for me and we turn it up a notch or two and just absolutely kick his ass. You go out and put a boot in somebody’s ass!”
Ask Adkins where he goes from here and he’ll say it’s quite simple: keep doing what he knows and love. Performing. Creating. Inspiring. He adores it. And, he adds, he knows so many of his lifelong fans, and new ones to boot, do too. “I’m gonna go out there and find those people,” he says with a laugh of the coming months. “I’m gonna bring a band and turn it up real loud! And we’re gonna have a good time!”