When Trace Adkins rolled into Spencer, Iowa, on Sept. 20, 2009, to headline the Clay County Fair, little did the veteran country singer know that the date would change the course of his career.
"Here we are at this fair in Iowa in the middle of nowhere," Adkins recalls, his reedy speaking voice rattling through a small, comfortable second-floor room at his publicist's Music Row office. "We saw these people beginning to gather, and somebody told me that I had played that fair before. I just made the comment, 'Oh, cowboy's back in town.' "
Within hours, Adkins and a couple of songwriting buddies-Kenny Beard, who co-wrote his 1997 hit "The Rest of Mine," and singer/songwriter Jeff Bates-had turned that "cowboy" phrase into a song about a woman in a relationship with someone who's often in another city. The three writers performed "Cowboy's Back in Town" acoustically for the first time that night in Spencer, and the song became a shining example of Adkins' mantra as he shifts his career.
"It was fun," Adkins says now of the day's creative burst. "That's what this business is supposed to be about."
Fourteen years after he debuted on Billboard's Hot Country Songs with "There's a Girl in Texas," Adkins is focused squarely on reclaiming the spark he felt at the outset of his career. The album he started that September is bursting with brisk tempos and Adkins' signature acerbic wit. Due Aug. 17, it's the first he recorded for Toby Keith's Show Dog-Universal label, and it bears the title "Cowboy's Back in Town" to reflect the spirit of that day at the Clay County Fair.
"I feel as energized and enthusiastic as I did when I first got a record deal," Adkins says. "I'm having fun again, so [the title] 'Cowboy's Back in Town' just made sense to me."
Much of that renewal can be traced directly to Adkins' 2009 run as Keith's opening act on the America's Toughest tour. Keith regularly trotted Adkins back onstage to duet during the encore on "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)."
"When Trace came off the stage, he was so amped up," Beard says of the first joint encore. "When we got back to the bus, he said, 'My gosh, KB, I want that. I want to be that excited when I leave the stage. I want to feel what that feels like again.' "
Judging from "Cowboy's Back in Town," Adkins has succeeded. Co-producing the project with Beard and Michael Knox (Jason Aldean, Josh Thompson), he fashioned an album that's long on positivity and humor, beginning with the opening double-entendre "Brown Chicken Brown Cow." The redneck wedding tale "Hold My Beer" and the couch-potato anthem "Hell, I Can Do That" underscore Adkins' newfound lightness. He still delivers a handful of ballads-the title track, "A Little Bit of Missing You" and "Break Her Fall"-that add some depth.
Only in the swaggering final cut, "Whoop a Man's Ass," does he even approach dark subject matter. It's simply not in his field of view at the moment.
"It's got a lot of attitude, and it's got a lot of smile," Keith said of the album at a January press conference where he announced Adkins' signing. "And," he added, "it's got a lot of edge."
A lot of artists crave the sort of edge that Adkins has created for himself. Blessed with a wide range and a resonance so rich that KFC once hired him to do voice-overs, he's collected 14 top 10 country singles that fit a panorama of styles. He played the role of traditional balladeer in "Every Light in the House," put gritty sexual tones in "Hot Mama" and "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," and became a sort of family role model with "You're Gonna Miss This," which spent three weeks at No. 1 on Hot Country Songs in 2008.
More recently, he hit No. 1 in a collaboration with Blake Shelton on "Hillbilly Bone," which won vocal event of the year at the Academy of Country Music Awards. He also earned a Grammy Award nomination for his 2009 ballad "All I Ask for Anymore."
"There's a sweet spot in Trace's voice," Beard says, "and what makes him so unique to me, he's the only bass singer that I know of whose voice cuts like a baritone or tenor."