There aren’t many voices like Trace Adkins‘ left in country music. Though his genre frequently rewards singers with a nasal croon, Adkins’ vocals scrape low and swing wide. He’s aware of his unique position, though not particularly concerned about it. “Maybe country’s running out of testosterone,” he quips. “I don’t know.”
Adkins, who stands at 6’6″, has draped himself nearly horizontal on an armchair in the dressing room of the iHeartRadio Theater in New York City before a show to celebrate the release of his new album, Something’s Going On. His hair is swept back in a ponytail, there’s a dark cowboy hat within reach on a rack to his right, and the top buttons on his Western shirt are unsnapped. He fidgets while he talks, but he’s a coolheaded, laconic presence, quoting Clint Eastwood — “a man’s got to know his limitations” — and never using words when a shrug will do.
Adkins was a reliable presence on the country charts in the late ’90s and ’00s, and his discography anticipates several major shifts in the sound of his genre. In 2002, he recorded “Chrome,” an early iteration of the rap- and riff-filled tracks that brought male country musicians enormous success in the ’10s. (This was the same year that Kid Rock first appeared on the country charts, a year before Bubba Sparxxx‘s ground-breaking Deliverance, and two years before Tim McGraw teamed up with Nelly for “Over and Over.”) And it’s just a hop and a skip from Adkins’ sing-talking on his 2004 hit “Songs About Me” — an approach that’s even more noticeable when he performs the tune live — to Sam Hunt‘s immensely popular style of recitation.
“I’ve been accused of starting all that with ‘Chrome’ and [2004’s ‘Honky Tonk] Badonkadonk’ and different things that I’ve done,” Adkins acknowledges. “Whatever — I don’t care.”
His stoicism falls away when he talks about new music: songs still hit this man with the force of a truck. When Adkins first heard the demo for his latest single, “Watered Down,” he recalls feeling like “it nailed me right between the eyes.” While recording “Whippoorwills and Freight Trains,” Adkins was overwhelmed by the poignancy of what he was singing. “I told Mickey [Jack Cones, the producer], ‘hold on now — this song’s killing me,'” he explains. “It’s cool that a song can still do that. I’m not jaded or numb to it. Music can still hurt me or make me dance.”
Perhaps the only other thing that makes Adkins this animated is social media. He has a colorful way of describing Twitter that will stay with you. “We’re all at a pool party in the pool having a great time,” he says. “Suddenly, ‘is that a turd? Somebody shit in the pool!’ I don’t know about you, but I’m getting out of the fucking pool. That’s the way I feel about Twitter. Their little symbol on the stock exchange should be ECI — Empowered Cowards Incorporated.”
On stage later that evening, Adkins resumes his deadpan delivery while being interviewed by radio host Michael J in between performances. (The concert will stream on iHeartRadio.com/TraceAdkins and on iHeartRadio’s Mainstream Country and Classic Country stations at 9 p.m. local time Monday night.) Their conversation unfolds like a promising on-screen buddy comedy: J talks and gestures with exploding-seltzer-bottle enthusiasm, and Adkins bats away his bubbly questions with stony and unfailingly amusing answers. Did he enjoy voicing commercials for KFC and Firestone? “You can do it in your underwear,” Adkins says.
He plays classics from his back catalog: “You’re Gonna Miss This,” which is his biggest pop hit, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” which climbed to No. 2 on the Hot Country Songs chart, and “Just Fishin,'” a tender top 10 from 2011. He also returns to his very first single, “There’s a Girl in Texas,” and it smolders in a live setting, with a staunch rhythm section and three-part harmonies during the chorus.
Adkins sprinkles new numbers around the old favorites. “Watered Down,” a tale of fighting to age with poise, is already one of the year’s most charming ballads. The delicate arrangement, full of pedal steel and high acoustic frills, tugs against Adkins’ cavernous low notes. There’s a country mile between “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and “Watered Down,” but this singer has the vocal authority to close that gap.
Several songs from Something’s Going On are precisely calibrated to connect to ongoing musical threads in Adkins’ catalog. When he plays the new album’s sashaying title track, for example, it brings to mind a long line of lusty Adkins’ numbers reaching back to his fourth single, “I Left Something Turned On At Home.”
“Something’s Going On” is also one of several tracks on the new album where Adkins drops his voice to extreme depths. This remains the ace up his sleeve, the moment where he reaches through the speakers and shakes the listener by the shirt collar.
Nowhere does he sink further than on “Whippoorwills and Freight Trains,” the penultimate track on the new record. “I’ve probably sang lower than that live,” Adkins says. “But on recording, that’s the lowest note I’ve done.”
“That was for Buck Owens,” he continues, nodding to the man who helped pioneer country’s Bakersfield Sound era in the ’60s. “Buck took me under his wing early on in my career,” Adkins remembers. “He told me one day, ‘Trace, that low note you sang, you need to do that in every song. That’s really all you got going for you.'”
Owens, who died in 2006, was obviously kidding about the extent of Adkins’ talents, but his acknowledgment of the importance of the low note was dead on the mark: it continues to elevate Adkins — and country music.