Not-So-Big Time: What Happened To Trace Adkins?

Image from WFMJ

The musical legacy of Trace Adkins is, in a word, complicated. Over the course of his career, he has demonstrated great talent, questionable decision-making, a rough-luck streak that rivals Randy Travis, and oftentimes all three at the same time. When he was on, however, there were few better in the business (heck, he put a song on my 2017 best-of list over twenty years after his career started), and there’s no question he left an impression in the minds of country fans of the 90s and 2000s, which led Kory to ask what had become of the not-so-gentle giant:

I’ve personally always blamed Toby Keith for the destruction of Adkins’s career, but you could also make an equally-compelling case that Keith saved Adkins from a lifetime of irrelevance. If you claimed that the fall of Adkins’s career was self-inflicted, you wouldn’t get much of an argument either: Genre-benders like “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” and bizarre novelty tunes like “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” stick out like sore thumbs in his discography, and his longstanding battle with alcoholism and the turbulence it caused in his personal and professional life can make his whole story read like a country song itself. In the end, maybe the question shouldn’t be “What happened to Trace Adkins?”, but “How the heck is Trace Adkins still here?”

From a musical standpoint, Adkins’s career can be broken into three phases:

Phase One: The Conventional Country Singer (1996 – 2000)

A lot had happened to Adkins by the time he signed with Capitol Records in the mid 1990s: A bulldozer accident, a severed finger, and most notably being shot through the heart by his second wife in 1994 during an argument over his drinking. On the surface, unlike many of the careers we’ve dug into, there was no label instability here: Adkins was a fixture on the Capitol roster until the label went “broke” in 2010. Within the label, however, change was a constant companion: The label went through three presidents from 1996 to 2001, and Adkins worked with three different producers (Scott Hendricks, Trey Bruce, Dan Huff) over his first four albums. Despite this, however, Adkins’s singles over this period had a relatively consistent sound that fell neatly in line with the neotraditional movement.

However, as we’ve discussed before, the late 1990s were a transitional period from the late 80s/early 90s neotraditional sound a poppier sound headlined by acts like Shania Twain and Faith Hill. Although Adkins’s debut album Dreamin’ Out Loud was relatively successful (it produced three top five hits, including the #1 “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing,” and his debut single “There’s A Girl In Texas” remains one of his most recognizable songs despite only reaching #20), he crashed back down to earth soon after takeoff, producing only a single top-ten hit (“The Rest Of Mine”) in the remainder of the decade. Looking back, it could be argued that Adkins did not do enough to distinguish himself from the pack: He did not, for example, make much use of his voice’s incredible range, and his releases were heavily skewed towards ballads and stuck to the standard lovin’ and leavin’ themes of the era. Regardless of the whys, Adkins was keenly aware that what he was doing wasn’t working:

“When a reporter referred to Adkins’ ‘success’ as a recording artist, he quickly dismissed the characterization. ‘Thank you for having that perception that I’ve had all this success,’ he said with a grimace. ‘I appreciate that.'”  ⁠—Edward Morris, CMT, July 2001

(Actually, you can see a similar deep in Keith’s output around the same time before he switched from Mercury to Dreamworks.) However, Keith would soon find success as a swaggering, confrontational macho man, and Adkins and Capitol took notice.

Phase Two: The Dangerous Man (2001 – 2009)

2001’s Chrome was the first sign that a change was in the air: The first two singles were standard Adkins ballads (“I’m Tryin'” and “Help Me Understand,” with the former reaching #6), but the third (the title track) was very different: The guitars were meatier, the percussion included some synthetic elements, Adkins leaned more on his low-end growl, and the writing’s focus on hot women and tricked-out rides would have felt right at home a decade later in the Bro-Country era. (As Adkins himself explained on his Greatest Hits Collection, Volume 1 enhanced CD, “Don’t look for the deeper meaning behind ‘Chrome’; there’s not one there.”) The song didn’t find any more success than the other singles (it would up at #10), but it served as the canary in the coal mine for what was coming next.

Some other statements from that e-CD interview hinted at the artist’s new direction as well. For one thing, Adkins declared that “I’m not a G artist. PG-13, leaning hard towards R.” This was total baloney: Adkins was practically the definition of a “safe,” G-rated artist, with only “(This Ain’t) No Thinkin’ Thing,” “I Left Something Turned On At Home,” and “Chrome” even remotely approaching sexual content (and they’re demure compared to some of the Bro-Country garbage we got in the 2010s). He also said that he was “a sucker for a good double-entendre,” despite “I Left Something Turned On At Home” being his only single that fit that description. Statements like this were aspirational rather than historical, and Adkins would quickly show that he was ready to walk the walk to back them up.

“Hey baby, wanna see my big…hat?” (Image from Amazon)

Adkins’s next three albums (Comin’ On Strong, Songs About Me, Dangerous Man) are best described as a boiling mass of swagger and sexuality, recasting the singer as a macho man with simple pleasures and blunt opinions. It’s not hard to see where Adkins’s inspiration came from: Toby Keith had struck gold with “How Do You Like Me Now?” in 2000, and spent the next half-decade on top of the genre with his abrasive, in-your-face attitude. Adkins’s ripped off Keith’s blunt machismo (“Rough & Ready,” “Songs About Me”), sprinkled in a dash of Keith’s pandering patriotism (“Arlington”), and then put his own twist on the style by incorporating an overt sexuality that would often cross into objectification and even misogyny: “Hot Mama,” “Ladies Love Country Boys,” and perhaps the biggest hit of Adkins’s career:

In hindsight, “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” was a warning shot indicating what was to befall country music in the 2010s: The slicker, more-synthetic production, the vocal effects and audio jump-cuts, the reduction of a female character to his physical appearance (particularly her posterior), the endless remixes, and on and on and on. The song was denied a #1 on the country charts thanks to Carrie Underwood’s “Jesus, Take The Wheel” (perhaps the antithesis of Adkins’s song, and possible proof that there is a god after all), but it crossed over to become Adkins’s best showing on the Hot 100, topping out at #30. If there was ever a reason Adkins’s legacy in country music is so spotty, it is this song: It’s the first thing that pops into peoples’ minds when they think of Adkins, and it forever made him persona non grata among the genre purists.

Despite the vitriol that Adkins received then (and even now) for his switch, you can’t argue with the results: By becoming Toby Keith with an added dose of sexuality, Adkins finally had a brand that was both recognizable and profitable. Comin’ On Strong and Songs About Me became his first platinum albums since Dreamin’ Out Loud, and he rebounded from his late-90s malaise to become a consistent presence in the top half of the country charts. However, he was still unable to break into the top tier of the genre, earning only a pair of #1 singles in the 2000s and never truly  escaping from Keith’s shadow. He still had a weakness for off-the-wall novelty tunes like “Swing” and “Marry For Money,” and towards the end of the decade he began to slide back into the mid-tier doldrums that he had found himself in during the late 1990s, a slide that culminated in his eventual exit from Capitol.

Some other concerning factors appeared during this time as well:

  • This was the decade where Adkins’s alcoholism started to spill into his public life. A 2001 DUI led to his first stint in rehab, and while the issue did not arise again during the 2000s, it’s hard to believe it didn’t color some of the decisions that were made, especially Adkins’s departure from Capitol.
  • The end of the decade saw Adkins start to branch out from music and use his newfound notoriety to open doors in other fields. He published an autobiography in 2007, and he started working more in film and television, most memorably as a contestant on Celebrity Apprentice. This continued into the next decade, suggesting that Adkins’s focus had begun to shift from music.

In the end, the 2000s were a profitable decade for Trace Adkins, but by 2009 he was basically in the same position he was in 1999. This time, there would be no rebound.

Phase Three: The Collapse (2010 – 2016)

The 2010s would not be a kind decade to Adkins:

  • He departed Capitol for Show-Dog Nashville in 2010, recording three albums for the label but only scoring one top ten (“Just Fishin’,” which topped out at #6). The era is most remembered for the dumb-as-a-rock “Brown Chicken Brown Cow,” which only made it to #39 and forever stained Adkins’s legacy in the eyes of those who hadn’t forgiven him for his 2000s audacity.

Something else happened here, something that’s a bit harder to explain: As Bro-Country started taking over the airwaves and “Honky Tonk Badonkadonk” started sounding less like an exception and more like a rule, the public suddenly decided they wanted to hear the old Adkins rather than the current one. His most successful songs after 2006 were “You’re Going To Miss This” and “Just Fishin'”, the sort of thoughtful, traditional material that Adkins was more associated with in the 1990s. Rather than rejecting an artist outright due to age as is custom in Nashville, it seemed that the fifty-something Adkins had been deemed unsuitable for the Bro-Country movement, and pushed into an elder statesman role that he wasn’t fully ready to accept.

Adkins’s alcohol issues coincide with a three-year between 2013’s Love Will… and 2016’s Something’s Going On, and by the time Adkins returned to the scene, nothing was going on: He has yet to crack the Top 40 since 2011’s “Million Dollar View.”

Conclusions

So what happened to Trace Adkins? I think the finger can be pointed in a lot of different directions: The muscular, Toby Keith style of country was starting to wane by the late 2000s, neither country purists nor Bro-Country fans were terribly eager to embrace Adkins, label instability started to rear its head, poor song selection painted him as someone who couldn’t be taken seriously, and the ongoing battle with alcoholism left him in a vulnerable state and unable to properly respond to everything that was swirling around him.

“Watered Down” showed that Adkins is still capable of making musical magic, and Blake Shelton and HARDY have shown that he’s still in moderate demand as a collaborator. Adkins reminds me a lot of Marty Stuart in that despite getting limited chart recognition in his prime (only three #1 singles overall), he had an outsized impact on country music, and he’ll be remembered (for better or worse) long after he’s faded from the public consciousness. His career was an exciting and heartbreaking journey, and while the bad times stick out the most today, I hope people remember the good times too.

Song Review: Blake Shelton ft. Trace Adkins, “Hell Right”

“Hell Right?” More like “Hell No.”

By now, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll ever like a Blake Shelton song again. While I stand by my review proclaiming his last single “God’s Country” as one of the worst songs I’ve heard all year, I was in the minority on this issue, as the song became a massive hit that even cracked the Top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100. After getting that kind of reward for that level of awfulness, I was more than a little nervous about what was coming when Shelton announced his latest single “Hell Right,” a collaboration with Trace Adkins and the second of Shelton’s apparent post-album singles. It would be hard to sink lower than “God’s Country,” but would this song really be much better? The answer is a flat “Nope”: The track is a leftover Bro-Country party anthem with a few of the rougher edges sanded off, and unlike the song’s “girl from a small town,” I’d rather listen to “Old Town Road” than this junk.

The only difference between this production and that of a song like Florida Georgia Line’s “Smooth” is that Shelton left out the drum machine and the dobro. Otherwise, this mix is exactly the same: A slow, swampy tempo, an amplified acoustic guitar for the verses, a wall of noise on the chorus (Shelton’s song uses electric guitars, while FGL’s just turned their mics up), a not-terribly-prominent drum set (which is left underwater for half the opening verse, and includes a clap track on the bridge that at least sounds like actual clapping), and even the same unnecessary cricket-chirp clip at the beginning. I called FGL’s mix “languid” and “lethargic,” and the same adjectives apple here: There’s no energy and only the slightest hint of a groove present, and the darker instrument tones, the basic verse chord constuction, and the reliance on minor chords in the chorus really don’t get the listener in a partying state of mind. (The effects on the “all my rowdy friends” line needs to be called out as well—it sounds so robotic that I’m convinced they brought in Optimus Prime for the backing vocals.) There’s nothing fun or interesting about this sound, and it leaves the audience begging for the next song to wash this one out of their ears.

Blake Shelton is one of the most charismatic and earnest performers in country music, but only when he wants to be (which apparently isn’t now). Instead of putting his strong singing voice to use, he brings back his toneless, half-talking cadence from “Boys ‘Round Here” and delivers the verses with all the emotion and passion of someone reading the evening news. The choruses are better when Shelton gets back to his conventional delivery, but he runs into another problem: His lack of vocal chemistry with Adkins, which makes the pair’s shared lines sound a bit off. (They sounded fine together on “Hillbilly Bone” back in the day, so I’m not sure what went wrong this time around.) Because of this, Adkins really doesn’t add much to the song, and outside of a few conversational bits, he could have been left out entirely. Overall, I found Shelton more irritating than endearing on this track, and I wish he’d stick to material that played to his strengths.

And then *sigh* we have the lyrics:

Hell right, hell right
Everybody’s throwin’ down on a Friday night
Somewhere in America
There’s a bottle to burn and a fire to light
And you ain’t done nothin’ if you did it half way
If you gonna raise hell, then you better damn raise
Hell right, hell right, hell right…

I just labeled Jon Langston’s “Now You Know” as “the most generic, paint-by-numbers ‘I’m so country!’ track” I’d heard in a while, and now Shelton has claimed that title for “let’s party!” tracks. There’s a small shred of story here, it’s not a terribly novel or compelling one: Guys get off work, drink themselves into a stupor because that’s the way to have fun, and then go back to work hungover. (I doubt this is what Easton Corbin meant when he said story songs were missing from the genre.) The “hell right” wordplay only barely qualifies as such, and beyond that, it’s everything you would expect: throwing down on a Friday night with alcohol, bonfires, hay bales, small-town girls and Hank Jr. references. (Also, if you’re going to throw shade at “Old Town Road,” you should at least sing a song that’s better. This song is not.) In other words, this is a generic, poorly-constructed song that feels way out of place this far from the Bro-Country era, and deserves a spot in the dustbin of history right next to that terrible trend.

Despite it’s name, “Hell Right” does absolutely nothing right: The production is boring and lifeless, the writing is lazy and bland, and Blake Shelton comes across as tone-deaf and annoying. We put up with far too many songs of this ilk back in the Bro-Country era, and I’m not about to start putting up with them now. (I would still rank it above “God’s Country,” but only by a micrometer or two.) Deciding to stop making albums was a good first step for Shelton; now I just wish he’d embrace the tactic completely and stop making music altogether.

Rating: 3/10. Get that garbage out of here.

Song Review: Trace Adkins, “Watered Down”

“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.