“When the strings and the dream line up just right, something magical happens.”
In 2009, Trace Adkins spoke these words for a Grand Ole Opry commercial. In 2017, he decided to prove that they were true.
Adkins first appeared on the charts in 1996, and while he’s never reached the heights that Tim McGraw or Kenny Chesney did, he’s certainly had his moments (first as a classic neotraditional singer in the late 90s, then as a rough-edged Toby Keith clone in the early 00s), and he’s outlasted many of his contemporaries and hung around far longer than anyone expected. Adkins is 55 now, and has survived accidents, alcohol abuse and even a gunshot wound, making him the perfect person to sing a reflective song like “Watered Down.”
The production here harkens back to the neotraditional sound popular when Atkins first rose to prominence in the 90s. The melody is carried primarily by an acoustic guitar and real drums, and then lightly seasoned with fiddle, steel guitar, and even some mandolin to add some weight to the mix. The restrained approach to the instrumentation gives the song a soft, thoughtful tone that meshes perfectly with the subject matter, proving that sometimes less truly is more.
The lyrics here are mostly made up of metaphors, with the details left intentionally vague to let listeners fill in the the blanks themselves. (The one exception is the mentioning of women the narrator had a chance to marry but didn’t, which turned out to be a surprisingly poignant inclusion.) The song succeeds despite its broad strokes because of the universality of its topic: Once you get past a certain page, everybody’s reflected on their past accomplishes, everybody’s pondered their mortality, and everybody’s conceded that they aren’t the person they used to be. The song does a nice job of acknowledging the narrator’s regrets while also declaring that they’re at peace with the life they lived. (Heck, even when you’re relatively young like I am, the song makes you think of the older folks in your life, and wonder whether they too had found the same peace with their histories.) Simply put, I was very (pleasantly) surprised by how much this song moved me.
Adkins’s calling card has always been his strong, versatile baritone, and he sounds just as good as he did twenty years ago. More importantly, however, Adkins has the history to make this song work. The wisdom and perspective offered on this track require an artist of a certain age and background to pull off convincingly, and most artists don’t have the right mix of both to make this work. (Forget Sam Hunt and Thomas Rhett—I think even some veterans like Chesney, Blake Shelton, and even Eric Church would fall short.) Here, however, the combination of Adkins’s charisma, delivery, and backstory makes the song feel extra-personal and even autobiographical (despite the fact that Adkins wasn’t even a co-writer!).
Overall, “Watered Down” is a perfect marriage of song, singer, and sound, the kind of song that deserves all the plaudits and exposure it can get. Sadly, Adkins’s Q rating is practically negative now, and younger listeners probably won’t connect with it like older ones, so it won’t make any noticeable impact on the radio. It’ll be radio’s loss, though, because I don’t care what the song’s title may say—there is nothing watered down about this track.
Rating: 10/10. Buy it, stream it, or watch the video, but whatever you do, do not let this song pass you by.