By Bob Doerschuk
© 2011 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.
Over the past several years, Trace Adkins has made his presence known in some very unlikely places. You might have seen the Grand Ole Opry member towering over everyone else in Donald Trump’s ersatz office on NBC’s “The Celebrity Apprentice,” raising funds for the Gulf of Mexico oil cleanup on CNN’s “Larry King Live” or calmly holding his ground within the lion’s den of HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.” He’s battled bad guys in the 12-Gauge Comics series “Luke McBain,” found the perfect moonshine to complement a microscopic haute cuisine entrée in Blake Shelton’s “Hillbilly Bone” video (which won the guys a CMA Award for Musical Event of the Year), humbly accepted the DAR Medal of Honor from the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution, undertaken three USO tours, starred in movies, written a book and even gotten himself stuck inside Richard Petty’s No. 43 stock car as part of a friendly competition on behalf of their favorite headache remedies.
With all of this activity, one can be forgiven for forgetting why Adkins has become such a media presence. The reason becomes clear on his debut album for Show Dog–Universal, Cowboy’s Back in Town, which rocketed to the top of the Country album chart on its release in August. Few artists in any genre can cover as many bases as convincingly as Adkins, who shifts gears from the romantic (“Still Love You,” written by Robert Arthur, Jeff Bates and Kirk Roth) to the comedic (“Hell, I Can Do That,” by Jim Collins, Tony Martin and Lee Thomas Miller and the lead single “This Ain’t No Love Song,” by Tony Lane, Marcel and David Lee) and interprets narrative lyrics like a natural-born storyteller (“Cowboy’s Back in Town”).
That title track in particular proves the point, according to Kenny Beard, one of the two producers on this album. “Trace, Jeff Bates and I wrote that song in third person,” he pointed out. “But the way Trace sings it, he becomes that cowboy and the song takes on a first-person persona. When I heard him do his vocal, I went, ‘This is amazing!’ There’s been so much made about the sense that he’s unique because he’s a baritone, but people totally miss the point that he’s not a one-trick pony because his range is so broad. He’s one of our best singers — but he’s so much more than a singer. He’s a great vocalist.”
There’s unity as well as diversity throughout Cowboy’s Back in Town, as Adkins builds beyond his perception as a powerhouse singer. Every note he delivers comes from a masculine foundation so solid that it can withstand moments of sensitivity and even slapstick while never losing its swagger. As a result, a single picture emerges through his performance, though composed of many complex, coexistent parts.
“I’ve shamelessly tried to make Ronnie Milsap records,” Adkins explained. “I am a huge fan of his, and one of the reasons is that you never know what to expect from one cut to the next on a Ronnie Milsap record. He might do a pop song with The Pointer Sisters and then turn around and sing gospel, an R&B song or a stone-cold Country thing. With him, it’s an honest reflection of all the influences he has. I grew up with those influences as well, so that’s why I include a little bit of everything that I enjoy on the records I make.”
In this case, though, Adkins challenged himself by making a few changes in the lineup for his team. He had enjoyed a good working relationship with producer Frank Rogers on his most recent albums Dangerous Man and X. But then one day, while writing with Beard, he confided that he was thinking of doing something different and asked if Beard would want to join him as co-producer on the next album.
“I said ‘absolutely not,’” Beard recalled, with a laugh. “‘Following Frank would be a tall order. He’s a great producer.’ So he asked me if I had anybody to recommend, and my only recommendation was Michael Knox because they have so much in common. They’re both big, warm, fuzzy daddy/husband guys. They have the same attention to detail. I knew they’d appreciate each other.”
Knox was well established, especially through his work with Jason Aldean. “But I’m so out of the loop that I didn’t even realize that,” Adkins admitted. “I called him anyway, and literally the next day he drove up to Cincinnati and came to the show. We hit it off right from the get-go. He’s got good ears. He’s fun to work with. And I like his sense of humor. It’s good to work with somebody who can keep what we do in perspective and keep it light. Nobody is going to die if we don’t make a good record; we always need to remember that. It’s making music and it’s supposed to be fun. If it’s not fun, then I don’t want to work with you. But Michael and I get along great.”
Although he was already a fan of Adkins’ work, Knox felt it essential to see him perform. “When I see an artist live, it lets me know the kind of melody they sing more naturally,” he explained. “It’s easy to go into the studio and record any song off anybody these days, but it’s hard to find a song they can sell naturally. That’s what I look for at a show: What is he doing and how does he do it?”
What did Knox learn after seeing Adkins onstage? “Trace likes a tough melody,” he said. “He likes to push it. He likes to be strong. He’s a powerful vocalist, but that can get lost in the mix. He has a strong opinion of who he is. He knows exactly what he wants to say. That’s a rare thing, and that makes it hard to find a lyric that can stand up to him.”
Apparently it’s also hard to say no to the 6-foot-6-inch artist, who wasn’t ready to let Beard off the hook for the new album. As a result, Cowboy’s Back in Town includes five cuts produced by Beard and six by Knox. “I can understand why Trace probably wanted Michael to do half and me to do the other half — so it would have as much diversity as possible,” Beard said. “That’s exactly what we hoped to do.”
In fact, Beard persuaded Adkins to widen the album’s horizons even more, by cutting “Still Love You.” “I had no intention of cutting a ballad,” Adkins said. “You have to try to convey vulnerability, and that’s not always the easiest thing to do, at least for me personally. It’s not something that comes naturally. But I was over at Kenny’s office one day, listening to some tunes, and he said, ‘Let me play you this thing that Jeff Bates, with a couple other guys (Robert James Arthur and Kirk Roth), just wrote. It’s a ballad but I want you to hear it.’ Since Jeff is a friend of mine, I said, ‘Yeah, OK.’ He played it for me and I said, ‘Oh, my God!’”
Creative challenge comes naturally to Adkins. What’s more of a stretch is the marketing side of the business, surprising as that may seem to those who follow his rising profile as, in the current lingo, a brand. “I don’t think of myself that way,” he demurred. “Hopefully, you stay in this business long enough that you reach some level where you are least semi-iconic, if that’s the term. That’s when you start getting into brands. But I haven’t started getting all weird and talking in third person.”
This is precisely why Adkins has been effective as a spokesperson in a unique campaign in which he and Richard Petty engage in a playful rivalry on behalf of the headache remedies each endorses, with Adkins standing up for BC Powder and the NASCAR legend for Goody’s Headache Powders, both owned by GlaxoSmithKline. Posted at www.PickAPowder.com, these vignettes capture the two attempting to one-up each other and encouraging fans to join their online “team” and register for prizes: One Team Richard member will be given a trip for four to the Goody’s 500 in Martinsville, Va., in April, while the Team Trace winner receives the same travel, accommodations and number of tickets to an Adkins concert in early 2011.
“In our first meeting with Trace, he said something that will stick with me forever,” said Anthony Balk, Brand Manager, BC Powder. “He said, ‘You load the wagon and I’ll pull it.’ He absolutely lives that; he over-delivers on everything he does for us. And he’s a natural ad-libber. We just gave him some talking points for those Webisodes and let him run with it. That’s his style.”
“Well, I just look at those things as something I have to do,” Adkins shrugged. “To get to hang out with Richard Petty all day was a thrill for me. I wasn’t thinking about anything I might have been contributing to the project; I was stoked that I was hanging out with Petty. In that sense, I’m not concerned that I’ve forgotten who I am or where I’m from, because that was a reminder that I’m just a guy from Sarepta, La., that’s still in awe of certain people. I don’t look at myself as being a brand; I just have a good time.”
On the Web: www.TraceAdkins.com