Trace Adkins Talks New Single 'Jesus and Jones,' the Super Bowl and Why He Never Would've Predicted Donald Trump Running for President

Kristin Barlowe
Trace Adkins

Like many people, Trace Adkins was very focused on the events of Super Bowl 50 this past weekend. Taking it a step further, the Wheelhouse recording artist was actually in the Bay area for the festivities.

“I’m a huge football fan,” he tells Billboard. “I watch it all the time, and to have the opportunity to go to the Super Bowl for my first time is something that I am really stoked about. Peyton Manning is a friend of mine, so it was just a huge thrill for me to even be out there while it was happening.”

A former lineman for Louisiana Tech, the singer chuckled when asked if he thought he might be able to handle himself on the field. He says he could -- to a certain point. “I’ve done several National Anthems at NFL games where the coaches have said, ‘We ought to suit you up.’ I tell them I could give them one series -- maybe six or nine plays, but not much more than that.”

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Instead, the singer keeps his focus where it’s always been -- on his music. His debut single for Wheelhouse, “Jesus and Jones,” is finding early favor at radio -- sitting at No. 55 on the Country Airplay charts. The release of new music coincides with his 20th anniversary as a recording artist. Adkins broke onto the scene in 1996 with “There’s A Girl In Texas,” which hit No. 20 on the charts -- leading to a string of 31 additional appearances in the top 40.

After three albums on Show Dog/Universal, the singer independently released a well-received Christmas album, The King’s Gift, in the fall of 2013. At the time, the singer said he thought he might continue to release new music along those lines, but getting the chance to be the flagship artist for Wheelhouse, a new imprint from Broken Bow, changed his mind.

“Let’s be honest. The muscle of a label like Broken Bow -- as far as promotion and getting records played on the radio -- is pretty strong. Then, (label owner) Benny Brown said he was going to set up Wheelhouse, and that I would be the flagship artist. That was so enticing,” he said, adding the owner was the wild card in his decision. “After meeting Benny and getting to talk to him and having song meetings with him, you find out that he’s just an old-school guy. There are stacks of CD’s on his desk, and he listens to all of them. I love that about a label head. Most of them are about micromanaging everything, but Benny is just about the music. I love that about him.”

“Jesus and Jones” has sparked a lot of comments from his fan base, particularly when doing it in concert. “I have done it live, and that’s the main reason that it ended up being the first single -- the fan reaction to the song. I think a lot of that comes from the set-up of the song. When we do it live, we start the groove -- and I talk. I tell the story of how I started out singing bass in a Southern gospel quartet, and I did that for several years. At the same time, I was playing guitar with all of my daddy’s country records, like George Jones, Waylon Jennings, and Merle Haggard. At some point, I found myself singing George Jones songs in a beer joint. You have to try to find that middle ground between singing in a gospel quartet and in a beer joint. It’s a weird thing.”

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Of course, the song brings back memories of his friendship with the "Possum,” whom he says was every inch the legend that he was made out to be. “Our relationship goes way back,” he recalls. “I remember the first time I ever opened for George. I went out on stage to do the encore in his set. He was so gracious to do that for his opening acts. His big hit at the time was 'I Don’t Need Your Rockin’ Chair.' He’d invite the opening acts to come out and sing it with him. That was around 1998, and I remember it being such an overwhelming feeling. Nancy [Jones' wife] and my wife developed a relationship, and the baby shower for my youngest daughter was at their house. I remember going over and sitting and watching TV with him.” But hanging and watching TV with Jones wasn't a very social experience. “George didn’t like to talk a whole lot while watching TV, but it was so fun to just hang out with someone like that. George Jones was a good man, he really was, and probably the finest country vocalist that has ever lived.”

One person who just might put Adkins in that esteemed category is Wheelhouse BBR Music Group’s SVP promotion Carson James, who says he’s been a fan since day one. “I was in radio back in 1996 when “There’s A Girl In Texas” came out. I was at WLWI in Montgomery, and always thought there was something so unique about his voice. There was no one out there who sounded like he did.”

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James believes that fans are going to love the first Wheelhouse album from the singer. “I think we can go four to five singles deep. We’ve got sexy, soulful, and this one song called ‘Soldier,’ which is about a guy who comes back from the war -- and how he copes with everyday life," the music exec explains. "But, it’s a very positive thing. He’s got kids, soccer games, but every time he sees a flag, he stands up. He knows that when he sees his kids out there, it’s all the work that the military has done for the freedoms that we have. This album covers a wide range of topics and emotions, and he has never sounded better. He is a true singing performer.”

But, Adkins has also proven himself worthy as an actor -- with roles in films such as The Lincoln Lawyer, and stints on such reality shows as Celebrity Apprentice, where he became friends with presidential candidate Donald Trump. While the singer won't endorse any party or anyone running, he admits that the mogul continues to surprise him at every turn.

“It’s astounding. A year ago, people would ask me about him running for president. I would tell them he wasn’t going to, and I was wrong about that," says Adkins. "Then, I would say he wouldn’t make it past June, but I was wrong. I’ve been wrong on everything about him. So has everyone else. I will just say this about Donald Trump -- he has been kind to me, and has been fair with me. I’ve got no problems with the man.”

Super Bowl 50