I think Trace Adkins, a Louisiana-born roughneck who broke into the upper ranks of the 1990's Nashville elite, is a damn fine country singer. He doesn't always sing real country music (who does, in Nashville anymore?) but when he gets a good song, he rocks it, especially when he sings a sad, soul-haunting ballad. Here's a quick look at his work, with a few personal asides...
Trace Adkins "Dreamin' Out Loud" (Capitol, 1996)
(Produced by Scott Hendricks)
It's the same old story: new kid on the block who comes on all country and cocksure, then slips into the same old sugary country-pop ruts. This is Louisiana native Trace Adkins's dynamic debut, packed with good-natured, raunchy honkytonkers like "I Left Something Turned On At Home" and the loping, relaxed "If I Fall You're Going With Me," which of course are balanced by a bunch of drippy, tinkly Kenny Rogers/Michael Boltonesque ballads and an embarassing bluesy cover of Wilson Pickett's old R&B hit, "634-4789." But at least we got a sense of what he was capable of when he just sings a little straight-up country. A promising debut by a future country superstar.
Trace Adkins "Big Time" (Capitol, 1997)
(Produced by Scott Hendricks)
The followup to his debut disc, Dreamin' Out Loud. Decent music, with reasonably clever lyrics and fairly traditional arrangements (a bit heavy on the drums, but thankfully un-synthy). A major player on the country charts towards the end of the 1990s, Adkins writes a few tunes, but mostly he's singin' other people's stuff. What's most remarkable is how weak a singer he is: yeah, he can hit those Lefty-ish nasal notes, and roll down into the low George Jones-y growls, but he's not very expressive or dynamic. It's more like he's an adequate actor whose main worries are to remember his lines and not bump into furniture. He's okay, but not iconic.
Trace Adkins "More..." (Capitol, 1999)
(Produced by Ray Benson, Trey Bruce & Paul Worley)
The opening track throws a bunch of glitzy, busy, boy-bandish production in our face... When the beat kicks in and Adkins gets a chance to sing, it becomes listenable, but in general the production is a bit heinous and hackneyed. The slow stuff is often unbearable, and the Southern rock riffs that get thrown in to spice things up come off like just another gimmick. Still, to his producer's credit, they do seem to have figured out how to cover up his shortcomings as a singer -- on a song like "Can I Want Your Love" he really falls flat; with better-managed arrangements, he can really carry a tune home. So, six of one, half dozen of the other. Album highlights include "Don't Lie" and... well, maybe that's about it for me. Lotsa drippy duds on here, if you ask me...
Trace Adkins "Chrome" (Capitol, 2001)
(Produced by Trey Bruce & Dan Huff)
Super-over-the-top glossy postmillennial production, draped over shameless tearjerkers and canned blue-collar ballads... And yet, Adkins, with his modest voice tightly swathed by tightly crafted arrangements, is able to bring most of these songs home, even "I'm Trying," which recovers from an absurd "Elanor Rigby"-style string quartet intro. Hey, what can I say? It works: check out tunes like "I'm Paying For It Now," built around a fiddle, and with lyrics that pull you in... Which isn't to say that this disc doesn't have its disasters, notably the dorky, boybandish title track (and big hit single) and clunkers like "And There Was You," "Give Me You" and "Scream," but when Adkins just croons a country tune, he ain't half bad. About one third good... which, in Nashville, really ain't that bad.
Trace Adkins "Comin' On Strong" (Capitol, 2003)
(Produced by Trey Bruce & Scott Hendricks)
A pretty nice album, although the too-perfect production starts to drag it down a little in the middle. That might be appropriate, though, since the album's theme is maturity and marital fidelity, starting off with "Hot Mama," which sings the praises of gals with normal figures who mysteriously don't look like Kate Moss once the kids have come, and continues the theme on the title track -- about a wild & wooly buckaroo who's about to be landed by a gal who doesn't pay attention when he says he ain't the settlin' kind -- and on "Then I Wake Up," a weeper about a fellow who dreams about his gal long after she left him, and several other songs that follow in the same vein, notably "One Nightstand" (sic), where our guy remembers the fling that flung him from a happy home life into a dingy, dark motel... "Funny how a man's life can come down to one nightstand..." he sings, as he looks down at his wallet and keys... As country concept albums go, this is pretty darn good. The musical end is a little formulaic, but I'm impressed by the thoughtfulness with which these songs (all by different writers) were assembled. Worth checking out!
Trace Adkins "Songs About Me" (Capitol, 2005)
(Produced by Scott Hendricks & Dann Huff)
I met Trace Adkins a little while back; in fact, I interviewed him for a live video shoot that was featured online, and sat down with him face-to-face for about an hour on a big, fancy soundstage with the cameras running... He was in a spectacularly bad mood that day, having been run through his paces doing a bunch of publicity crap in Hollywood, and after they wore him out running across town and doing a TV show, then he had to go do this thing for the Internet... I gotta admit, I was a little worried about how things were going to work out, whether he was just going to clam up on me or what, but as it turned out, things went fine. And I wound up really liking Adkins a lot, precisely because he did act like a real human being -- he was having a hard day, he was tired and grumpy, and it was totally understandable. But, y'know, when we got down to talking about country music, he lit up like a Christmas tree, especially when I knew who Ed Bruce was (I was amazed to find out that Adkins's pal Trey Bruce is Ed's son...) Trace might be a big, tough, scary dude, but he's good people in my book. Plus, his album at the time was really, really good. All this namedropping and backpatting is, of course, a preamble for my having to review this album which is, well, a little too "Nashville" for me... It starts off with the title track, in which Trace meets one of those folks who "don't like twang," riding on the airplane seat next to his, and he wins them over by giving 'em free tickets to his concert and (naturally) blows the guy away by speaking to his heart the way only country music can... It's kind of an interesting song, but jeez, is it overproduced! In fact, the whole album is a little too LOUD and rock-oriented for me... (Could somebody just slip something in the guitar player's drink, and get him to rein it in a little??) In the past, Adkins has done a great job balancing between real, hard country grit and the overwrought pop that dominates Nashville today, here he plunges whole-hog into the sort of overwritten, pretentious "serious" songwriting that I find pretty dreary. The closest thing thing on here to a subtle song with a memorable melody is "My Heaven," which would be a great song, if not for that frickin' wanky guitar lead at the end... Hopefully Trace will recover his honkytonkosity on future records; no doubt that in the meantime this one will do great on the charts.
Trace Adkins "X" (Capitol-Nashville, 2008)
Did I ever mention that I met Trace Adkins once? I did? God, I'm boring. Well.. anyway... Nice guy; we bonded over our appreciation for country crooner Ed Bruce and he told me great story about how he got screwed out of his royalties when he first came to Nashville. Great guy, with a great voice. I mention this not just to show what a consummate namedropper I am, but so that Adkins (who's, like, six foot-thirteen) doesn't come kick my ass when I say how disappointing this new album sounds. It's a little too smooth and slick for my tastes, and all the obligatory "tough guy" tunes ring really false. Maybe he's just too rich now and too deeply ensconced in the fame factory to really crank up the volume the way he used to... Anyway, I still like his voice, and while this record doesn't actually suck or anything, I don't think I need to add these songs to my ultimate playlist anytime soon. Standard Nashville fare from a charismatic Top 40 star who in the past has transcended the limitations of the genre. Not my cup of tea.
Trace Adkins "Cowboy's Back In Town" (Universal/Show Dog, 2010)
(Produced by Michael Knox & Kenny Beard)
A robust, macho set, recorded for Toby Keith's Show Dog record label... The production is big, loud, full of Southern Rock guitars and thumping drums and crushing downbeats... It's also pretty high tech and a little gimmicky in some parts, hinting at the Big & Rich school of country-rock crossover. More than anything, though, this album is marked by Trace Adkins -- an artist I admire -- sounding an awful lot like his host, Toby Keith, both in the macho-novelty repertoire and the snarling, bearlike delivery. Of course, Adkins, who stands about six-foot-seventy, is an imposing, macho figure in his own right, but his individual voice seems lost in this barrage of manliness, particularly his ability to drive home weepers and ballads. Where's the "Baby's Gone" or "One Nightstand" on this album? Where's the subtlety? Not on the album's opener, "Brown Chicken Brown Cow" (about two farmhands who are so busy getting busy that no work is getting done in the barn... ) or in the humorous "Hold My Beer," about a good ol' boy who can barely put his brewsky down long enough to kiss the bride. Or on "Ala-Freakin-Bama," where a cutoff-clad Alabama hottie meets a Skynyrd-friendly bubba, or on "Hell, I Can Do That," where Bubba is watching teevee and thinkin', heck that Nascar stuff doesn't look so hard... In short, this is a brash, novelty oriented album that sort of sells Adkins short as a balladeer, but has some pretty amusing songs. I mean, who can resist a tune like "Whoop A Man's Ass," where he explains the manly etiquette of smackdowns and ass-kicking? Again, very Toby-esque, but also pretty funny. If you're in the market for some rough-and-tumble, guitar-heavy modern macho, manly country, then this disc is for you.
Trace Adkins "Proud To Be Here" (Universal/Show Dog, 2011)
(Produced by Kenny Beard & Mark Wright)
As noted above, Mr. Adkins has always shown unexpected depths; on the title track, which opens this album, he reflects on a rowdy past and gives thanks (and expresses amazement) that he's still alive. This being Nashville, of course he didn't actually write the song, but it still rings true -- it's a great song and a powerful opening salvo. The rest of the record is a little too high-concept and overproduced for my tastes, and not all the songs have as much rootsy vigor as they should. Adkins sounds great, but the songs tend to be a little sluggish -- I like the move towards maturity and contemplation, I just with the music had more bite and sounded less factory-made. I also think the new hook-up with label head Toby Keith has led Adkins to adopt a sloppier singing style than he used to favor. A first-rate song stylist, Adkins can project huge emotional power while still staying in the lines; unstructured redneck romps like "Love Buzz" and "Damn You Bubba" make him sound like just another dude with a low, gravelly voice. The relative merits of his strengths as a country singer get lost, though, on the bonus tracks of the "deluxe edition" where Adkins embraces the most corrosive aspects of "tea party" politics, first playing the victim card by whining about the imaginary oppression of "us" true-blue, red-blooded, God-loving, flag-waving Americans and calling for "real Americans" to "push back" against the nasty people who supposedly hate God and need to be reminded that "there's more of us than there are of them." Now, I'm pretty sure that I have some political differences with Mr. Adkins and whoever wrote this song, but I gotta say, it really pisses me off to have them talk about me as though I don't deserve to live in America and that my having a different point of view makes me some kind of a traitor. I was born in America, I love this country, I pay my taxes and I vote in every election, and I have as much right to my beliefs as anyone else. Talking about "double-checking" who the real Americans are is probably the single most un-American, unpatriotic act that anyone could make, including big Nashville stars. It's just plain wrong. We're all Americans, and we should respect one another -- that's part of loving America. This kind of tough talk and chest-thumping might sell a few records, but it isn't going to help solve any problems. Frankly I'm disappointed and embarrassed to hear one of my favorite modern artists sink so low. You should be ashamed, Trace.
Trace Adkins "Greatest Hits Collection, v.1" (Capitol, 2003)
Hick Music Index