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."
Adkins' adaptability, however, isn't restricted to his music. Early in his career, he began a series of semi-regular appearances on Bill Maher 's "Politically Incorrect," and his frank, informed debates with the host helped establish him as an artist who could handle his own beyond the concert stage.
He authored a book, "A Personal Stand: Observations and Opinions From a Freethinking Roughneck" (Villard Books), in 2007. He's appeared in several movies, including the independent "Trailer Park of Terror" and the irreverent "An American Carol."
In his most visible nonmusic role, Adkins reached the finals in 2008 on Donald Trump's NBC reality series "The Celebrity Apprentice," losing out to Piers Morgan in a matchup framed as the all-American cowboy versus the evil Brit.
Adkins has since been used as the model for a four-part comic book series, "Luke McBain," which manager Ken Levitan says may be optioned for a movie. And he has a wealth of acting roles in the works. Adkins has completed a TV pilot that would place him in a recurring role; has done scenes for an independent movie, "Lifted," about a 12-year-old boy whose father is serving overseas; is set to play the leader of a biker gang in "The Lincoln Lawyer," a Matthew McConaughey movie that shoots in August; and has signed on to portray a controversial Confederate general in "Cleburne," a Civil War picture still in development.
"He's smart, he's a good actor, he's creative, and he's funny," Levitan says, "so you start to look for all the different things that can piece that together. He's a real renaissance man."
Yet with all of those things in his favor, Adkins hardly felt like a renaissance man a year ago. He had signed with Capitol when Scott Hendricks directed the label in the mid-'90s. Hendricks left soon after, replaced by marketing specialist Pat Quigley. And in 2000, Mike Dungan rose from the promotion ranks to oversee the country division.
With a roster that features Lady Antebellum , Keith Urban  and Luke Bryan , among others, Capitol was named Billboard's country label of the year for 2009. Nevertheless, Adkins felt constricted by shrinking budgets as parent company EMI struggled financially.
"They're broke," Adkins says. "Everybody knows that. I mean, it's in the Wall Street Journal every other week. They don't have any money. And that desperation, that feeling permeates the entire company. I don't care [who you are], you cannot insulate yourself from that, and to me it was just a downer. It was not a good environment to try to operate in for me."
Capitol had an option to extend his contract, but the payout that both sides had previously agreed upon presented a problem.
"Dungan just straight-up told me, much to his credit, 'I can't do that. I'm telling you right now that if I go to those guys over there across the pond and tell them I have to cut you this check, they're going to tell me no,' " Adkins recalls.
Adkins and Capitol did explore other ways to make a deal work. In the meantime, his experience on the America's Toughest tour had him longing for the atmosphere that Keith had established with both his management team and record label.
"I saw firsthand the approach that they have," Adkins says. "There is still a high premium placed on having fun."
Energized by the tour, Adkins self-financed the September recording sessions, uncertain where the masters would end up. Despite the business skills he showed in "The Celebrity Apprentice," he wasn't interested in forming his own label.
"I don't yearn to be a businessman," he says. "Do I have the chops to do it? Yeah, I could do it. But I don't want to."
He was likewise unenthusiastic about signing with an independent label, which would give him more creative freedom but make it even harder to promote his songs to country radio. In December, it still appeared he would remain with Capitol. The label issued one of his six self-financed tracks, "Ala-Freakin-Bama," to stations in the state to pick up on the state spirit when Alabama won the Southeastern Conference football championship.
But around that same time, he heard that Keith was likely to merge his operations with Universal South, a division of Universal Music Group. The idea of working for an independent label with strong ties to a major sounded enticing.
"That put a different spin on everything," Adkins says.
A single phone call confirmed it. Keith spilled his plans for the merger, and Adkins in return started telling Keith about the new material he'd recorded. Before he could even finish the thought, Keith cut him off.
"He said, 'I don't need to hear them. I know what you do. If you want to be on my record label, I'm in,' " Adkins recalls. "And that's what I wanted to hear."
Universal South likewise was happy to hear about the Adkins-Keith partnership, which was essentially locked up at the same time Keith completed the merger forming Show Dog-Universal.
"[I was] thinking that we were going to get this one big star," Show Dog-Universal president Mark Wright says. "I didn't know it would be two. Manna from heaven."
Adkins officially signed his recording contract in front of reporters at a Jan. 13 press conference announcing the new label. And Show Dog-Universal gave Adkins plenty of leeway as he completed the 11-track album, allowing him the space to express his own creative voice.
"He's got a lot of courage when it comes to making music," Wright says. "If he feels it, he'll sing it. He doesn't sit back and go, 'Oh, I wonder if this'll work.' To me, that's courage."
The first single, "This Ain't No Love Song," represents the album well. "It's not just a one-listen, pablum record," Wright says. "It's all about the story. The more you hear that story, the more you love that song." The track is No. 30 this week on Hot Country Songs.
Adkins' reach is a little wider than is typical for a country singer who hasn't had a crossover airplay hit. "He's very articulate and well-read, and his intellect is a little higher than most people probably want to give him credit for," Beard says. "He's not that dumb country boy from north Louisiana."
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