Trace Adkins Talks Collaborating With Melissa Etheridge and Blake Shelton and Emulating Ronnie Milsap on New Album

Trace Adkins
Kristin Barlowe*

Trace Adkins

In celebrating a milestone career anniversary, some artists choose to release a greatest hits collection or another type of career retrospective. Not Trace Adkins. When it came time to celebrate his 25th anniversary, the country veteran knew just exactly the kind of album he wanted to make.

“I wanted to make a Ronnie Milsap record,” Adkins tells Billboard over Zoom. “You go back and listen to those Ronnie Milsap records -- you never knew from one cut to the next what you were going to get. It might be something that sounds like ‘Lost in the Fifties Tonight,’ and then something that he did with the Pointer Sisters, and then a straight up rock track, then a gospel track and then a cry-in-your-beer ballad. [Those are] the kind of records that I’ve always wanted to make, and that’s what we did on this one.”

Releasing Aug. 27, Adkins’ 13th studio album, The Way I Wanna Go, is a creative tour de force that serves up the lyrical and stylistic diversity that would make his hero Milsap proud. Produced by Mickey Jack Cones and Derek George, the 25-song collection features a variety of special guests, including Melissa Etheridge on “Love Walks Through the Rain,” Keb’ Mo’ and Stevie Wonder on “Memory to Memphis,” Blake Shelton on “If I Was a Woman,” Snoop Dogg on “So Do the Neighbors” and Luke Bryan and Pitbull, who join Adkins on the single “Where the Country Girls At.”

“Luke is a friend of mine and I played songs for him and said, ‘I want you to sing one of these songs,’ and he’s just like, ‘Yeah!’ We just had a blast doing it,” Adkins says. “We hung out in the studio that day and just laughed a lot. We don’t get to see each other enough, so we had a lot of fun." The country star was less immediately familiar with the rapper known as Mr. 305: "That was Mickey and Derek reaching out to Pitbull’s people, because they thought that he would lend something to this,” he explains.

Adkins is particularly excited about the duet with Etheridge. “I’ve done very few duets with female vocalists in my career because it’s very hard to find a female vocal that blends with mine because my voice is so low,” he says. “She’s got that kind of raspy, gritty, deeper female vocal and it blends perfectly with my voice. It’s the best duet that I’ve ever done.”

Adkins is also happy to be singing again with his longtime pal Shelton, with whom he’s currently touring on the Friends and Heroes Tour. “I wrote that years ago with Kenny Beard, Jeff Bates and Sherrié Austin -- and I specifically set out to write a song that I could do with Blake,” Adkins says of “If I Was a Woman.” “I wished somebody would have videoed that day in the studio, because it’s amazing that we actually got a vocal track that wasn’t just covered up with laughter -- because we laughed the whole time. Most of the stuff we were saying, the banter back and forth, we couldn’t put on a record. We cleaned it up as much as we possibly could. We had a blast.”

Adkins says several of the songs on the new album were ones he had been wanting to record for a long time. “Kerry Kurt Phillips wrote a funny song on this record. I’ve had that song cut for 20 years and nobody would ever let me put it on a record,” he says of “It’s a Good Thing I Don’t Drink,” which Phillips wrote with Jamie Teachenor. “There are a few songs on this record that I absolutely put my foot down and said, ‘I’m putting this song on this record. This is my 25th anniversary record and there are some songs that I’ve been wanting to record for years and nobody would let me.’ So there are three or four on here like that [including] the thing with Blake, the thing by Kerry Kurt and ‘Honey Child.'"

The title track, penned by Barry Dean, Troy Verges and Brothers Osborne’s John and T.J., sounds as if Adkins himself wrote it, and he had a strong reaction the first time he heard it. “It just killed me, and I thought, ‘Oh my God! Those boys somehow got inside my head and wrote this song. It says everything that I want to say. You can chisel this one on my tombstone,” he says. “'I’m going to go the way I want to go. I’m going to finish this ride when I want to get off...' When I think about it, I actually choke up a little bit, because if this was the last song that I ever got to record, that would be okay. It says everything that I want to say -- and that’s the reason it’s the title cut.”

In addition to assembling a collection of songs he’s proud of, Adkins also feels his vocals are better than ever. “I’ve been working with Mickey for a long time, and while we were making this record, he said, ‘I’ve never heard your vocal this strong. This is the best you’ve ever sounded,’ Adkins shares. "And I said, ‘Well, it’s because I’m rested. I’m coming in the studio doing these vocals with literally weeks of vocal rest...' I’ve never had that opportunity before."

Indeed, once Adkins’ career took off, the towering entertainer has never had much time for rest. This year marks the 25th anniversary of Adkins’ debut album, Dreamin’ Out Loud, which was released in 1996. He scored his first hit on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart with the top 20-peaking “There’s a Girl in Texas.” In the years that followed, the 6’ 6” Sarepta, Louisiana, native has gone on to populate country radio with such hits as “Every Light in the House,” “The Rest of Mine,” “This Ain’t No Thinkin’ Thing,” “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” “Ladies Love Country Boys,” “You’re Gonna Miss This” and more.

“It’s been a dream and one that I would have never allowed myself to dream,” he says. “I never would have allowed myself to think that this career could have been possible, and I’ve loved every minute of it. I have regrets, of course. I made some mistakes and did some stupid s--t, but for the most part, it’s been a beautiful life.”

What regrets? “Just stupid stuff I’ve done over the years that I wished I could take back and things that I wished I wouldn’t have said. Going to jail always sucks,” he says, in reference to being arrested for DUI in 2001.

When asked what advice he would give his younger self, Adkins replies: “Be patient. That would be the thing. This business works on its own schedule and there’s nothing you can do to make the train go down the track any faster. It’s going to go the way it wants. It’s on the track and the throttle is set and there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s not going to go any faster than it’s going to go, so you’re just going to cause yourself a lot of frustration and stress if you worry about how quickly this thing is going to progress."

Adkins also has advice for newcomers looking to establish a career. “One of the very first things somebody told me was, 'Don’t spend your own money.' That’s No. 1 and it served me well,” he says. “If somebody believes in you, then they are going to spend their money. If they don’t believe in you, they’re going to ask you for some money -- and run away from those people. They are not legitimate.

“And then another thing -- my very first big-time manager that I had in this business, the first meeting I had with him, Gary Borman, I was sitting in his office in Santa Monica and he pointed at the television and he said, ‘That’s the key. Every chance you get to be on TV, do it.’”

Over the years, Adkins has branched out from promotional appearances on TV into a full-fledged acting career, in such films as The Lincoln Lawyer and I Can Only Imagine. “I don’t know how many movies I’ve got coming out this year -- three or four,” he says, mentioning Old Henry with Stephen Dorff and Scott Haze, and Apache Junction with Thomas Jane, Scout Taylor-Compton and Stuart Townsend, which is set for release Sept. 24.

“Along with doing the record last year, I was still able to work on movies because we’d go to the set and they’d [COVID] test, and you’d sit around for 15 minutes and wait on the results," he explains. "Then we’d all go to work.”

With the new films, new album and the Shelton tour, Adkins is busy, and admits life is good. “I’m happy I’m still around and I’m happy somebody gives a s--t,” he says with a grin. “I just want to keep working. I want to keep doing movies and if I could just continue to live this charmed existence that I’ve been allowed to have, then I’ll be happy.”